Monday 14 November 2011

Berlusconi, Magnetic and Divisive, Whose Politics Were Personal


ROME — With a combination of savvy media domination, old-fashioned party politics and a salesman’s preternatural charm, Silvio Berlusconi has dominated Italy more than anyone since Mussolini.

And polarized it. “No one had ever so divided Italy and Italians,” wrote Massimo Gramellini, a columnist for the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa.

His resignation on Saturday after 17 years as the paramount figure in Italian politics, just over half of them as prime minister, does not erase his presence from the political stage. He still has a powerful political party, now fighting for its future, and owns Italy’s largest private broadcaster. But it marks the symbolic end of an era in which the media baron held the country under his spell.

A businessman who built a real estate and media empire, Mr. Berlusconi was first elected in 1994, casting himself as a modernizer and promising Italy a season of free-market reform. But after a career barely dented by colorful sex scandals and multiple corruption trials, it was the market that finally drove him from office, when Europe’s debt crisis hit Italy.

From the start, Mr. Berlusconi entwined his fate with Italy’s. By personalizing Italian politics and turning himself into a brand — self-made, virile and wily — he transformed Italy’s political and institutional cultures in ways that will resonate for years.

In recent years, it was the sex scandals that most dominated the headlines, as reports emerged from judicial investigations of tawdry parties at the prime minister’s private homes involving scores of young women and even a prostitute who went by the stage name Ruby Heartstealer. (He faces charges of paying for sex with a minor, although they both deny the sex, and abusing his office by helping release her from police custody when she was arrested for theft.)

“He legitimized and made normal a kind of behavior, a style of illegality that in other countries would not even be tolerated in small doses,” said Paolo Flores d’Arcais, a philosopher and editor of the left-wing monthly magazine MicroMega. “And he inverted everything so that those who criticized him were considered moralists. It’s the world turned upside down.”

Mr. Berlusconi entered politics in the wake of a bribery scandal that had brought down Italy’s postwar political order, where for decades a centrist Catholic party was pitted against Westernized Communists. In a 1994 televised address, unprecedented in Italy’s staid political culture, he promised a new world, and invited Italians to join him.

“I have decided to enter the playing field and to take up politics because I don’t want to live in country that is not free, governed by immature political forces and by men who are bound hand and foot to a past that was both a political and economic failure,” he said.

Alexander Stille, the author of a book on Mr. Berlusconi called “The Sack of Rome,” said he represented something new. “The old political parties, the Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party, represented broad ideologies and their leaders were comparatively unimportant,” he said. “Berlusconi, already a celebrity, offered himself: no real ideology other than his own personal wealth.”

It was a brilliant strategy, and it catapulted him into power. But his first term lasted only eight months, crashing when he lost a coalition ally. Mr. Berlusconi led the opposition for the rest of the 1990s, when a series of technocratic and center-left governments brought Italy into the single European currency.

He was elected again in 2001, after delivering a magazine-sized volume, “An Italian Story,” to every doorstep in Italy. A masterpiece of self-branding, it depicted him as a self-made businessman, a family man and a ladies’ man. With a dash of populism, it listed his horoscope (a Libra, “he is a communicative person capable of strong passion and deep love”) and showcased his love of soccer. He had named his party Forza Italia, or “Go, Italy,” after a soccer cheer.

Italians admired his image of wealth and sexual prowess. “The average Italian saw himself as Berlusconi, only poorer,” wrote Mr. Gramellini, the columnist.

That image was cemented into Italy’s psyche, and rarely challenged, in the media he controlled. His broadcasting company, Mediaset, shook up Italian television starting in the 1980s by importing flashy American soap operas and dramas and producing new programs featuring scantily-clad dancing girls, draining audiences from the staid state broadcaster.

By the time he ran for office, in a country where most of the population watches TV news, he owned the three largest private television networks as well as popular supermarket tabloids and a broadsheet newspaper.

Once in power, he also held sway over the state broadcaster, giving him a virtual monopoly on information. He had created a mass audience and transformed it into a political constituency.

The center-left opposition berated him for conflict of interest, but even in power it never mounted a serious effort to legally prohibit it.

Mr. Berlusconi’s 2001 victory, which dovetailed with the arrival of the euro, ushered in an era of political patronage that became known as “Berlusconismo.” Ever blurring the line between public and private, he reappointed his own tax lawyer, Giulio Tremonti, as finance minister; his company’s criminal lawyers helped draft penal legislation; and his employees served as candidates and ministers.

The blurring even extended to foreign policy. Mr. Berlusconi developed close personal ties with Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the late Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, which he said were in Italy’s best interests. Italy relies on imported natural gas for the bulk of its energy needs. But cables from the WikiLeaks trove released last year show that American and other officials were concerned about whether those ties also benefited his businesses.

Elected as a pro-business reformer, Mr. Berlusconi got one notable loosening of Italy’s tight labor laws passed, and tried to modernize Italy’s inefficient public sector, with mixed results, and eliminated some unpopular taxes, while others rose.

Defenders said his efforts were stymied by the broken system he inherited. “I don’t think it’s his fault because in Italy to pass the smallest reform is a titanic enterprise,” said Vittorio Feltri, a senior editor at Il Giornale, a Berlusconi family newspaper. The same cumbersome parliamentary procedures will hamper his successor, Mr. Feltri added, “unless there is a miracle.”

On his watch, however, Italy’s growth stagnated, its debt ballooned to $2.6 trillion, about 120 percent of the G.D.P., and Italy stumbled in international rankings of competitiveness and transparency.

After his re-election in 2008, as the financial crisis arose, his love life and his parliamentary efforts to postpone legal reckonings in several cases overshadowed any debate about the economy.

He became equally known for his off-color jokes and gaffes, which rankled some and endeared him to others. In 2008, for example, he called President Obama “handsome, young and also suntanned.”

In 2009, he separated from his wife, Veronica Lario, a former B-movie actress, who pulled the plug on their nearly 30-year union after the prime minister attended the 18th birthday party of an aspiring Neapolitan starlet. This year, newspapers printed salacious details of sex parties as his villas.

Over the years, he was tried for tax fraud, bribing judges and other white-collar crimes. In each case, he was either acquitted, the conviction was reversed on appeal or the statute of limitations ran out. He once referred to himself as “the politician most persecuted by prosecutors in the entire history of the world throughout the ages,” and said he had spent about $270 million in legal fees.

The scandals will follow him from office, and several pending trials, which he had been able to delay on account of official duties, will resume.

Above all, Mr. Berlusconi was brilliant communicator. He told Italians want they wanted to hear, even if they did not believe him.

Indro Montanelli, who died in 2001, a former editor-in-chief of Il Giornale, once observed of Mr. Berlusconi, “Truth is what he says it is.” That maxim endured until economic reality intervened.

Mr. Berlusconi commanded tremendous loyalty, and millions of supporters defended him to the end, blaming overzealous magistrates for the scandals.

“I think he did well for the country, and I never thought we should be ashamed of him,” said a businessman in downtown Rome on Saturday who gave his name only as Giulio. “Do you think he is the only one who slept with prostitutes and escorts?”

For his supporters, as for Mr. Berlusconi, the political was never far removed from the personal. When he lost his majority in Parliament on Tuesday, felled by a handful of his own lawmakers, a camera snapped a photo of a note on which Mr. Berlusconi had tallied the vote, circling the number 8, his losing margin, and writing beside it: “traitors.”

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