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The Enduring Confusion of Italian Politics

Why Has Berlusconi Bounced Back?

by TOM GILL

The latest polls make depressing reading. Billionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi has narrowed his lead over the centre-left’s Pier Luigi Bersani to within the margin of error of an opinion poll for the first time before Italy’s February 24-25 elections. The gap between the two has now narrowed to 3.7 points, according to a poll that has a margin error of 4 percentage points. The same pollster, Tecne, had Bersani leading by 14 percentage points on January 2.

So why has Berlusconi, who left office for the fourth time in November 2011 under a gigantic cloud, come bouncing back? Here’s five reasons:

1. Well that’s what he does, he’s the come back kid, and he’s a genius showman.

2. When you also control the show, that makes a political makeover a whole lot easier. Yes, his investment portfolio still includes three (out of four) national private terrestrial TV channels, Il Giornale, one of Italy’s top selling dailies, Publitalia, the country’s largest advertiser, and as his People of Freedom party is the largest in parliament, he’s got much influence over state TV too. And of course, that’s excluding the free publicity that comes with owning top football club AC Milan, and the clout that comes with a fortune of some $6 billion.

3. He’s having some success at smearing the Left through the Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank scandal, although this affair, which has rocked Italy’s hitherto relatively stable banking system, is not about improper political influence in the historically ‘red’ Tuscan town. Rather it it a result of the world’s old bank embracing the hyper-speculative practices (derivative trading) of the 21st century finance industry that has already brought much of the West to its knees.

4. Berlusconi’s return, despite being sentenced to four years for tax fraud and continuing a case over child prostitution, is also a matter of policy substance, even if he has always made up policy (apart from that pertaining to himself) on the hoof.

Some of his policies are proving rather popular, like abolishing a hated housing tax (he’s done that before, on the eve of an election, and then won it). This is not surprising coming after a year of pure austerity courtesy of unelected PM Mario Monti – a year in which, as Berlusconi correctly states, not a single economic indicator has improved, including jobs and incomes, which are sliding dramatically. And while Bersani is decidedly pro-European, Berlusconi has in words, if not in deeds, been Euro-skeptic, even floating the idea of Italy leaving the Eurozone as part of an attack on Germany and its hegemony over the bloc. Quite apart from real resentment among Italians of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s austere recipes for Italy and other struggling southern EU members, this plays on memories of Germany’s occupation of Italy in World War Two.

5. The absence of real alternatives. Bersani made clear at the outset of the campaign he would stick to Monti’s ‘reform’ agenda (that is, rolling back welfare and labour rights) as well as his (economically suicidal) deficit reduction goals . This week he went further, saying he’d seal an alliance with Monti if that was what it would take garner a majority in parliament. This is in fact perfectly consistent with the past 12 months in which Monti has only been able to impose a most violent and self-defeating austerity and structural reform programme with Bersani’s support. And indeed that of Berlusconi. In fact, both main parties have been hiding behind the ‘technocrat’, a former European Commissioner, in the hope that he takes all the heat for policies they have in effect ratified by giving him the parliamentary support.

But in politics appearances are everything and Berlusconi has this past year been careful to distance himself from Monti, and is standing now, as he always has, together with the nasty, xenophobic Northern League. Meanwhile Bersani, who, previous to this overture to the most pure neo-liberal on the European scene had done a deal with a man to his left, the openly gay Puglia governor and leader of the Left Ecology Freedom Party Nichi Vendola, now risks looking even more inconsistent and opportunist than Berlusconi. And he will certainly struggle to articulate how his government will be any different that the current administration if Mario Monti is part of his team.

There is  in fact a genuine alternative, the Civil Revolution party, comprising communists, greens and other left-wingers including a crusading former anti-mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia, the movement’s leader. But it is polling at just 5% and being a new creation, with no friends in the media, political or business establishment, it will struggle to gain the kind of visibility it needs, at least in time for polling day end of the month.

Concluding…

At root, Berlusconi’s return is caused by that chronic disease on Italy’s left since the Italian Communist Party (PCI), once Italy’s second largest political movement, dissolved itself 1989-91: an endless search for alliances to its Right, leading to much political flip flopping, and a steady abandonment of radical demands, or even those associated with traditional social democracy, like labour rights and welfare. Indeed the main successor of the PCI, the Democrats, has failed to champion even the most basic of liberal demands, like a semblance of freedom of the press. They had national power twice since Berlusconi first stormed Rome in 1994, but failed to break up his media empire.

This latest manifestation of that disease may ultimately leave the field open to the real wild card in the election: the Five Star Movement led by comedian-blogger Beppe Grillo that shouts loudly about corruption and austerity, even if it’s thin on policy detail and suffers the same cult of the personality as Berlusconi’s party. With local and regional victories under its belt, from Parma in the north to Sicily in the extreme south, Grillo’s movement is scoring third in the polls, at 16%. Part of the attraction of this upstart populist movement, in the current confusion that reigns in Italian politics, is its refusal to do deals with any other parties. It might not be the most likely scenario, but the final showdown on election day could yet be Grillo vs Berlusconi.

Tom Gill blogs at www.revolting-europe.com