The dark side of the arrangement was the all-pervasive corruption that the system fostered. It is fascinating to read the work of journalists only a decade ago, seeing how almost without exception they would politely sidestep the facts; Italy was run by an unprincipled political machine, whose members were raking in as much for themselves as they could grab, and everyone knew it, only it couldn’t be said openly, for lack of proof. Even more sinister was the extent to which the machine would go to keep on top. The seventies, Italy’s ‘years of lead’, witnessed the worst of the political sleaze, along with a grim reign of extreme left- and right- wing terrorism, culminating in the kidnap and murder in 1978 of an honourable DC prime minister, Aldo Moro, who had attempted to forge a compromesso storico between mainstream left and right to balance power. The attacks were attributed to ‘leftist groups’, though even at the time many suspected that some of the highest circles in the government and army were manipulating them, with the possible collusion of the CIA. They were indeed; only recently has some of the truth of Moro’s ‘sacrifice’ begun to seep out. On another front, Italians woke up one morning in 1992 to find that the government had magically vacuumed 7 per cent of the money out of all their savings accounts, an ‘emergency measure’ to meet the nation’s colossal budget deficit – a deficit caused largely by the thievery of the political class and its allies in organized crime.
Italians are a patient lot but the lid was about to blow off. It all started in the judiciary, the one independent and relatively uncorrupt part of the government. In the early nineties, heroic prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino went after the Sicilian Mafia with some success, and were spectacularly assassinated for it, causing national outrage. Meanwhile, in Milan, a small group of prosecutors found a minor political kickback scandal that led them, through years of painstaking work, to the golden string that unravelled the whole rotten tangle of Italian political depravity – what Italians called tangentopoli, or ‘bribe city’. For a year, the televised hearings of Judge Antonio di Pietro and his Operation Mani Pulite (‘clean hands’) team from Milan were the nation’s favourite and most fascinating serial.
All the kingpins fell, notably Socialist leader Bettino Craxi (who died recently after years evading extradition in Tunisia). Others, especially former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, lost their parliamentary immunity. Andreotti was put on trial on two counts – association with the Mafia, and ordering the assassination of a journalist who had come perilously close to uncovering sinister links to Moro’s murder. The trials continue to this day, and the impossibility of upholding the convictions of Andreotti and others in the appeals courts has been a factor in Italians’ dwindling faith in their country’s ability to make a clean sweep of its past.
If all the big fish escaped jail, it was definitely the end for the two criminal ruling parties, the DC and the Socialists. The 1993 municipal elections, held at the height of the tangentopoli hearings, saw a major political realignment: a big victory for the new PDS, the former Communists, as well as advances by the neo-fascist MSI (now reborn and santized as the ‘National Alliance’) and the Lega, a coalition of northern separatist parties led by the bumptious and eccentric Umberto Bossi.
Many of the same old faces, not surprisingly, could still be seen thronging the corridors of power. But a power vacuum had been created, and in to fill it rushed the unlikely figure of Silvio Berlusconi, the former lounge singer and Craxi protegé whose political connections allowed him to assemble an unprecedented empire in television and publishing, and become Italy’s richest man in the process. Berlusconi thinks big: his empire was threatened by a possible PDS government, and the only way out was to buy the government for himself. He used his big bankroll and media control (he owns half of Italy’s TV audience, a third of its magazine readership, books, newspapers – and AC Milan) to create a new, totally synthetic party, called Forza Italia, and sell it to Italians the same way as soap and sex; prospective candidates were selected through auditions. Meanwhile, Berlusconi managed an improbable three-way alliance with the neo-fascists and Bossi’s Lega. It all worked brilliantly: in the 1994 parliamentary elections, the first of what many Italians called their ‘Second Republic’, Berlusconi’s rightist alliance won an impressive victory, and ‘Mr TV’ himself became prime minister. It soon became apparent that government under Berlusconi only meant business as usual. The media mogul’s refusal to distance himself from his empire while in office, and his heavy-handed attempt to cripple the Mani Pulite probes, made many Italians feel the egg on their faces – they had struggled so hard to topple a malodorous old order, only to vote it back into office at the first chance.
It wasn’t long before Judge Di Pietro resigned from the Mani Pulite investigations, under a cloud of phony political allegations. Di Pietro’s departure was followed in turn by that of Berlusconi himself, who – surrounded by his own fog of allegations of scandal and bribery – was forced out of office in early 1995 when Bossi withdrew his support. The political mess that remained was such that President Scalfaro called in a political outsider to straighten out the country and institute reforms. This was a banker, Lamberto Dini, whose lack of a political past and steady head were virtues enough to keep him in office while the politicians got their house in order.
Dini, the finance man, started reforms, but it was Romano Prodi and his left-centre ‘Olive Tree’ coalition, who brought in the necessary political will. Prodi, one of the country’s biggest Europhiles, rallied the republic to swallow a difficult financial pill: stringent economic measures that allowed Italy to squeak into the first round of the Euro in 1999. Prodi had little time to bask in the glory: the same strict measures led to the Communists withdrawing their support of his government in late 1998, giving it to a new prime minister, leftwing darling Massimo D’Alema of the DS, forming Italy’s 60th government since the War. D’Alema didn’t last long either, and was replaced by yet another coalition of the left headed by former Craxian minister Giuseppe Amato.
The left’s disarray and poor economic performance made it possible for Berlusconi and his piquant allies to come roaring back in the 2001 elections. Since then, the man who calls himself ‘the World’s Greatest Politician’ has seldom been out of the headlines. Mostly, he has been busy keeping himself and his henchmen out of courtrooms; laws have been passed granting him immunity against all charges, while another innovative bill threatens judges with jail terms for giving ‘incorrect sentences’. Berlusconi’s rough vulgarity in publicly insulting Germans, Muslims and others, coming in a year when Italy held the EU presidency, has proved a major embarrasment, while his strong support of the American adventure in Iraq, in the face of massive public opposition, has started to chip away at his popularity.
Now fully in control of nearly all of Italian television and much of the press, Berlusconi has been able to avert any serious national discussion of all this. He may not be another Mussolini—to start with, he’s 67 years old—but the idea of this Italian model of political power through media dominance spreading to other countries is beginning to cause increasing alarm across Europe.
© Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls
Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls can be reached at: email@example.com