The Godfather Part III Italy's Berlusconi Preens for Comeback

This weekend's elections in Italy could mark billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's return to power in what would be his third term in office. But rarely have Italian voters been so weary of their politicians -- and rarely has there been so little hope of any real change.

The man is exhausted. He gazes out into the darkness through the windows of the bus. "Italy is a wonderful country. But this political system!" The bus passes the lights of furniture warehouses, factories and brightly lit showrooms. "It's a system that is incapable of assuming responsibility and reaching any decision at all. And the parties are internally divided. The country is tired and sick."

The man on the bus is Walter Veltroni, and his task is to win the Italian parliamentary election this coming weekend.

He has just returned from a campaign appearance in Mantua, in the Lombardy region, where two or three thousand people came to the piazza to hear him speak as he stood blinking through his glasses at the city's magnificent old walls. It was an event that mirrored past appearances on other stunningly beautiful piazzas, in places like Cremona and Bergamo, and his audience was filled with much the same crowd of admirers, waving the cardboard signs of his Democratic Party and calling out "Walter! Walter!" as if he were their shining hope.

But the polls show Silvio Berlusconi and his People of Freedom party leading by a margin of 5 to 8 percent. Europe can start getting used to the idea of a third term for this billionaire politician, who was never able to see a difference between his own interests and the common good.

No one outside Italy's borders is likely to understand this -- or, for that matter, anything that happens in politics in this magnificent country. It is a country that is both an esthetic superpower and the site of burning piles of garbage in Naples. And it is a country whose business executives working abroad, for companies like BMW and the German financial giant HypoVereinsbank, celebrate successes, while its most profitable business organization at home is the Mafia.

This country can still look forward to its own bitter reforms: in education, transportation, pensions and the restructuring of the constitution. Italy has fallen behind its neighboring countries. In fact, it is almost stagnating when it comes to growth and research and the influence they bring. By contrast, a country like Spain is in the fast lane. Italy cannot afford to feel exhausted. And that's what the election is all about.

The government of Romano Prodi lost its majority in the Senate in late January. Justice Minister Clemente Mastella changed parties because his wife was being investigated for abuse of authority. He said that he felt let down by his party. The upshot was that the government of the world's seventh-largest economic power collapsed  over the problems of a provincial politician from the small town of Ceppaloni near Naples.

Was this what Veltroni meant when he talked about his country's sickness? Tiny parties are making decisions that will affect the fate of the nation, driven by their leaders' craving for recognition and by the temptation lurking at ever turn.

The people are "mistrustful," Veltroni says on his campaign bus. This, he adds, has been his experience during his tour of each of the country's 110 provinces. They are suspicious of the caste of politicians and are even leery of their own hopes. Experts say that this is why more voters than normal have decided not to vote at all.

Veltroni is a calm man. As the mayor of Rome, he was fond of inviting intellectuals and movie stars to his city hall. He is now 52. Perhaps his time has not yet come.

He avoids mentioning the name of his opponent at his campaign appearances. He doesn't want to campaign on an anti-Berlusconi platform, or as the heir to the unpopular Prodi administration. The latter is the more difficult challenge of the two. After all, Prodi is also a member of the Democratic Party. For many Italians, the name "Prodi" represents taxes, a high cost of living and political impotence. "It is difficult to give them hope. But we can do it," says Veltroni. "Obama has also done it."

Veltroni's campaign slogan is: "Si può fare," or "Yes, we can" in Italian. "I met Obama in Washington," says Veltroni. "He was different. Modern and inspiring. I wrote the foreword to the Italian edition of his book." Perhaps it was intended as an attempt to influence Veltroni's own destiny.

"Si può fare" are the words printed on the cardboard signs that Veltroni's audiences wave when he speaks on their piazzas. But there is something unreal about the slogan, especially in light of the stonewalling and bureaucracy and ineptness Veltroni himself has complained about, and in light of the Italian sickness.

There is no Obama in Italy. In no other European country except the Vatican is the political class so heavily influenced by old people. The 89-year-old former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti has been in the parliament without interruption since the end of World War II, and he is still an important player. Clemente Mastella, a former labor minister and justice minister, has been a deputy for 32 years -- for four different parties.

Winning Votes with Cash

Columnist Curzio Maltese feels that Italy suffers from what he calls a Dorian Gray syndrome, a reference to Oscar Wilde's novel about a vain man who wants to preserve his youthful beauty. "We are an old country that likes to portray itself as being young," Maltese writes. Italians are afraid of new things and of change, and they prevent young people from gaining access to power.

In the afternoon, when Veltroni was talking about precarious employment contracts for young people, Barbara, a 23-year-old part-time worker at the Piadineria snack shop, asked someone what was going on. "Precarious? I'm precarious," she said, adding that she planned to vote for the candidate who would give her something in return. In the past, that was Berlusconi. "He promised €1,000 ($1,580) for each newborn child. So I voted for him." And who will it be this time? "None of them. Basta. They're all liars."

Once upon a time, politics in Italy had something to do with party get-togethers, convictions and faith. But for someone like Barbara, it has been discounted to the lowest common denominator. Whoever pays up gets her vote. That's all she wants.

Romano Prodi was voted into office two years ago because Italians were tired of Berlusconi. "This government," says Minister for Social Affairs Paolo Ferrero, referring to the outgoing administration, of which he is a part, "has not changed people's lives in any noticeable way. Okay, it fought against tax evasion. That pleases those who have a sense of the common good. On the other hand, that scares off those people affected by the measures, and most people couldn't care less. No consensus was established."

Paolo Ferrero, the second-youngest minister in the cabinet, is a Protestant from a working-class family and a member of the Communist Refoundation Party. He doesn't expect to be sitting at his desk much longer. The historical Prodi compromise, the marriage of convenience between former Christian Democrats and Communists, has failed.

"The majority in the Senate was so thin," says Ferrero, "that it essentially meant that every senator had a veto. And that was exploited. The Church blocked every civil rights reform, and the economic liberals stood in the way of all effective social policies."

Ferrero says that he is part of the first generation of people to know that their children will be worse off than they are. People in Italy live on the capital of the past, on their family names, on the art of community inherited from their grandparents and on the ease of social interaction. "You foreigners like that. But we live on yesterday. We are a country with a great fear of the future, in a situation in which things will only get worse. This explains the allure of the populism of someone like Berlusconi."

According to Ferrero, perhaps Italy even deserves this man. "He belongs to the narrative of the nation. This is a country where one-fifth of GNP is earned under the table. The Reformation never happened here. This is why respect for rules is less pronounced here than elsewhere. Italians tend to see a reflection of themselves in the rich and in the self-made man. Berlusconi is a larger-than-life version of what many Italians want for themselves on a more modest scale."

Some say that this campaign has been more peaceful than the campaign two years ago. More peaceful, in Italy, means a party chairman going on a thirst strike to secure better spots on the campaign list for his party, the Radicals. Quieter means Silvio Berlusconi ripping Veltroni's campaign platform to shreds in front of his raucous supporters.

The Christian Democrats have placed Sicily's regional president, Salvatore Cuffaro -- who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement in the Mafia -- in a key position, under the motto: "Values that cannot be bought." And Berlusconi has proven anyone wrong who might have believed that the private masseuse of a party leader wouldn't stand a chance of securing a slot on the party's list of candidates.

Berlusconi's list of senators also includes Giuseppe Ciarrapico, 74, a bankrupt dealmaker with a criminal record -- and a man who publicly declared that he has "never denied" his fascist sympathies.

This is old Italy -- admired and marveled at but, most of all, ridiculed. It is a land of comedians and dazzlers, lovable rascals, tricksters and eternal children. Italy is a bit of Roberto Benigni, a bit of Gianna Nannini and a bit of Armani. It will probably never be able to shake this image, and it suffers from it.

Under the Italian constitution, both chambers of parliament have exactly the same powers. The minute the microphones are switched off, every politician begins lecturing at length about this absurdity. And yet, in the 60 years of its postwar history, Italy has not managed to change the status quo.

When the Italians vote this weekend, no one will be able to check a box next to the name of a specific candidate. Italians vote for a list of candidates. In other words, the party leaders determine who sits in the parliament: and it is consistently the same people, for the most part.

Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Northern League and former reforms minister, calls it "an outrage." But he was one of the ones who dreamed it up in the first place.

Both candidates call for reforms in their platforms, sometimes the same reforms: less bureaucracy, lower taxes, constitutional reform. The campaign platforms are different, but only in nuances. They consist of promises to specific clienteles, not visionary proposals. Berlusconi will build a bridge for the Sicilians near Messina. Veltroni will not; instead, he promises to raise pensions and eliminate university tuition. A grand coalition like the one in Germany would be as obvious as it is impossible. The country is too deeply divided for that, into right and left, poor and rich, and north and south.

Resentment in the North

Flavio Tosi is unshaven and wears his shirt open at the collar. This lends him the -- presumably deliberate -- air of an Ahmadinejad of the Northern Italian revolution. Tosi is the new leader of the Northern League and, since May 2007, the mayor of Verona, the legendary city of Romeo and Juliet within sight of the Alps.

"We fixed our healthcare system," he says. "It was brutal. Why should we pay for the €2 billion ($3.2 billion) deficit of hospitals in (the southern region of) Campania?"

Tosi speaks with a strong Venetian accent. Founded 17 years ago, the Northern League of Umberto Bossi is anchored in the Emilia Romagna, Venice and Lombardy regions. It likes to refer to Northern Italy as "Padania."

In some areas, it is as entrenched as, say, the Republicans in Texas. It has its own newspaper and a television station. The signs in areas where the Northern League controls the local government are bilingual, with curious accents and "Padanese" umlauts. It's as if New Yorkers had suddenly decided to refer to their home city as "Nèw Yörk."

Tosi's fellow League member Giancarlo Gentilini, from Treviso, once proposed dressing illegal immigrants up as rabbits as target practice for hunters -- "bang bang bang," as he put it. Tosi himself was once taken to court on charges of inciting racial hatred, in a case involving the removal of a Roma camp. It is yet another of Italy's contradictions that, according to one charity, efforts to integrate immigrants in 2006 were the strongest in Northern League strongholds like Treviso.

Verona's mayor isn't calling for an immediate separation from Mezzogiorno, as southern Italy is sometimes called. "But the south must stick to the rules," he says. "Campania received billions of euros to deal with its garbage problems. Nothing happened." Businesspeople in the north, says Tosi, are tired of being taxed at a rate of 43 percent, simply because the government is incapable of managing its money.

But the league was part of the Berlusconi government for five years, and there were no reforms. The two parties have joined forces again for this weekend's election. "Berlusconi is a predator," says Tosi. "He senses that people want reforms now. We are giving him this one last chance. Otherwise the system will fall apart."

A large photograph of the pope hangs behind Tosi's desk, where a portrait of current Italian President Giorgio Napolitano used to be. The switch was one of Tosi's first official acts.

The mythical Padania is one of Europe's wealthiest regions. The A4 Autostrada between Milan and Verona is lined with flat-roofed factory buildings, stylish office buildings and machinery. They represent thousands of small and mid-sized companies no one has ever heard of, companies that are successfully doing business in places like Slovenia and China.

Hardly any of them receives government subsidies, and not all of them pay every conceivable tax, but many are creative and all are filled with contempt for Rome and its politics. According to American author Thomas Friedman, this is the Italy that is best prepared for globalization: "Italy, in some ways, is the ultimate post-industrial society," he wrote. "It has no government!"

Is the flexible treatment of the law perhaps the secret that keeps Italian society functioning? "No," says journalist Marco Travaglio, a well-known chronicler of Italian scandals. "If for no other reason, simply because Italy doesn't function."

"Public contracts cost twice as much as they do abroad, and their implementation takes three times as long," says Travaglio. "We are deeply in debt, which is a consequence of corruption and political nepotism. Jobs don't go to the most capable, but to those with the right connections. The good ones move abroad. No, we pay a high price for our picturesque Italian conditions."

Voters feel poorer than before. According to the most recent statistics released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), real wages have grown at a lower rate in Italy than in Greece and Spain. High taxes and a high cost of living are to blame, as are the debts of the Dolce Vita era and the failure to invest in infrastructure, education and energy. In other words, the past is to blame.

In a 2007 book entitled "Mani Sporche" ("Dirty Hands"), Travaglio and his co-authors examine in detail the scandals of the last seven years, from a soccer scandal to a wire-tapping affair to allegations of corruption and prostitution surrounding the head of the royal House of Savoy. The book, a bestseller, is the size of a shoebox and weighs just less than one kilogram.

"Politics is not the solution, but the problem," says Travaglio. "The parties, both camps, have seen to it that crimes fall under the statute of limitations more quickly and that litigation takes longer."

According to an estimate by the Rome-based research institute Censis, there were more than 5 million criminal cases pending in Italy at the end of 2006. Even worse, the limitation period is not suspended at the beginning of a trial. A lengthy trial is all it takes for a case to vanish into thin air and allow the defendant to go scot-free. This is how many scandals in Italy come to an end.

It recently came to light that Italy had 2 million houses that were not supposed to exist, according to the land register. It was like the discovery of a continent.

When German financial investigators tracked down untaxed assets tucked away in Liechtenstein, the German tax authorities collected €30 million ($47 million) in back taxes within a few weeks. In Italy, this sum is smaller than the fine that was slapped on a single tax evader, champion motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi.

There are currently 24 convicted Italian criminals who hold seats in the Italian or European parliaments. Their crimes include tax evasion, perjury, corruption, violating explosives laws and incitement to murder.

South Seeks to Throw Off Mafia Image

On a Monday in July 1977, the cover image of DER SPIEGEL showed a plate of spaghetti with a revolver in the middle. The headline read: "Holiday Destination Italy." Italians still complain about the spaghetti cover. Their pain must be deep-seated.

Nothing is more embarrassing to Italians than the Mafia. When asked what they considered to be their country's greatest blemish, 40 percent of respondents named the Mafia, 31 percent the country's waste disposal problems and 12 percent the destruction of the natural landscape. Nevertheless, it is painful for Italians when the only reports coming out of Mezzogiorno are about protection money, garbage and supposedly dioxin-contaminated mozzarella cheese. It hurts, because it is both true and false -- false because it fails to show the other side of southern Italy.

Take, for example, Anna Finocchiaro. The 53-year-old Sicilian, with her smoky voice and trademark blood-red handbag, has what it takes to become Italy's version of Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton or Ségolène Royal. A former prosecutor, a Communist and a cabinet minister, she is now the leader of Veltroni's party in the Senate. The party expects her to capture Sicily for the Democratic Party, or at least prevent it from going entirely to Berlusconi -- an impossible task.

"Voters here are as tied to the bosses as in the days of feudalism," says Finocchiaro. "On the other hand, politics interferes in things where it has no business interfering. In Sicily, physicians-in-chief are not appointed because of their abilities, but based on the relationships they have with politicians. The same applies, by the way, to nurses."

In the south, politics is the art of using slaps on the back, embraces and thousands upon thousands of mobile phone conversations to spin a network known as a "power," a network composed of favors and connections, of people with cushy positions in the civil service and their confidants. Some even say that this brand of politics has long since spread throughout Italy.

Finocchiaro's adversary is Raffaele Lombardo, a 57-year-old psychiatrist from Catania and another master backslapper. The platform of his "Movement for Autonomy" party basically consists of being able to control, from Rome, where the flow of money from the north goes. But Berlusconi needed a local representative, after being let down by the Christian Democrats. As a result, Lombardo will likely become Sicily's regional president. And he'll get his bridge to the Sicilian city of Messina, to the delight of the country's steel and construction barons.

When Anna Finocchiaro drives through Palermo, the cars in her escort honking their way through the streets of bleak suburbs, the Mafia is never far away -- and not just because the last owner of her official car, a Mercedes, was a godfather from Catania. "Despite all of the arrests," says Finocchiaro, "the Mafia still has a very strong presence. It controls the labor market and other markets."

Finocchiaro is convinced that the only solution lies in the law, and in dismantling the male-dominated political machine of the Cuffaros and Lombardos, even if it costs votes. "A fossilized administration like ours, with its 17,000 positions, puts the brakes on development," says Finocchiaro, as she reapplies her lipstick and heads out to a meeting on equal opportunities for girls.

Oddly enough, Northern League politician and Mayor Flavio Tosi would have said the same thing. Indeed, everyone involved in this election campaign seems to have the same message: smaller government, lower taxes and less bureaucracy. If any of this were meant seriously, it would be mass suicide for the political class. But that is unlikely to happen.

'Thank God There Is Silvio!'

It is evening in the Palazetto gymnasium in Viterbo, an hour's drive north of Rome, where a crowd of Italy's finest sits and waits. The average Italian in this audience is older than 50, hardworking, Catholic and convinced that an income tax bill is the first step toward communism, in its senseless redistribution of wealth. They are waiting for "Il presidente" -- Silvio.

When a video featuring Berlusconi's campaign theme song comes on -- for the eighth time -- they stand up, wave their flags and sing the song that the happy ice cream vendors, construction workers and female call-center workers are singing on the video: "Meno male che Silvio c'è!" ("Thank God there is Silvio!"). It could almost be the Sanremo Music Festival.

Berlusconi walks into the room. He is short, squat and his smile seems to travel across his face like a nervous tic. "Silvio! Silvio!" It is his fifth parliamentary election campaign, each of which he has approached as a new man. He is now 71. But up on the stage, enveloped in a cloud of his own words, lights and adoring supporters, Berlusconi is no old man or marionette. For them, he is the same old Berlusconi: the perfect election machine.

"Watch out!" he says. "The leftists want to rig the elections once again. They have the professional training to do so." He makes it sound as if the Bolsheviks were storming the gates of Viterbo.

Berlusconi's anti-communism is as unconvincing as his hair, his teeth and his eternally youthful virility. It is as artificial as his slogans, his TV programs and his parties. But, by the same token, it is just as perfectly conceived and presented.

One thing about Berlusconi is real: his message, a blend of hatred for the left and the worldview of the manager of a discount chain store. The audience in the Viterbo gymnasium eats it up. For those who think that all politicians are liars, Berlusconi would have to be the cream of the crop. Nevertheless, many Italians still believe that he is capable of bringing about change, even if this means nothing more than reforming the feudal tax system.

Why on earth would anyone want to vote for this man? Silvio readily supplies the answer: "The pre-payment of the sales tax will be abolished in the first cabinet meeting" -- applause -- "as well as the tax on first-home buyers" -- applause -- and "the public administration will be digitized. We will continue the projects stopped by the leftists, and we will build new nuclear power plants and the bridge to Sicily."

Berlusconi may be a joke to the rest of the world, but not in Viterbo. No one here is interested in the litigation still pending against the godfather, in cases involving the bribing of witnesses and tax evasion on a grand scale. And the past charges of financial misstatement, corruption of television staff and senators? No problem, say his supporters. Everyone knows, of course, that judges are left-wingers who fetishize the law. And the man's bawdy sense of humor? "Meno male che Silvio c'è!" None of this is important, say his supporters in places like Viterbo. All that matters is that the government keeps its hands out of its citizens' wallets.

A somewhat disheveled-looking singer with a ponytail is now standing on the stage, directing the rows of pensioners, tradesmen and boutique owners, all of them swinging their flags, waving and trying to touch Berlusconi. By now many in the gymnasium are singing: "Say it with the strength that a clear head gives you! We are the people! Meno male che Silvio c'è!"

Here it is, once again, this spiral of smiles and harmonies and the feeling that everything will turn out differently this time. The melody is hard to forget, even days later. Endless, inexorable -- and hopeless.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Mehr lesen über

Verwandte Artikel

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren