Mamma mia, he’s still here

With the law granting him immunity from prosecution freshly lifted, it’s a fitting time to take a closer look at the character of Silvio Berlusconi, the highly controversial leader of Italy.

To the amazement of many, Silvio Berlusconi swept back into power in Italy after the elections in April 2008, and is now serving his third term as Prime Minister. A question comes to mind, that how the gaffe-prone leader of the People of Freedom -movement, implicated in several corruption investigations and questioned for his business linkages and private scandals, still enjoys the trust of the majority of Italians?

A self-made man

Through his business success, Berlusconi was already a household name when entering politics and winning the elections with his Forza Italia -party in 1994. Barbara Zanchetta from the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs believes that the reason for his success was the fact that he came from outside the traditional political establishment.

“People had a negative view about the dysfunctional political system, and Berlusconi, a self-made business man, was seen as positive change,” she notes. It was hoped that he would put his skills to use in helping the country, and judging by his ongoing success, this appeal still seems to exist.

But being a political outsider has also caused Berlusconi a lot of harm in the form of embarrassing jokes and baffling statements. “The background for these is that he is not a politician, which still shows in many occasions. He is not able to relate with other politicians in diplomatic terms,” Zanchetta believes.

This has also been noted by Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s former foreign minister, who admits that he, among others, has sometimes wondered how a character like Berlusconi can be the leader of an EU country. “Judging by my own experience and stories from others, Berlusconi is quite difficult to deal with,” Tuomioja adds.

Media control

As well as having vested interests in the business world, the biggest controversy shadowing Berlusconi’s career has been his huge media power. He owns Mediaset, the country’s biggest commercial broadcaster, and allegedly steers RAI’s program policy as well.  

“In theory his media ownerships are very problematic,” admits Zanchetta “but in practice there is plenty of criticism aimed at him. Saying that there is no pluralism is pushing it too far.“

Tuomioja is far more critical when asked if Berlusconi’s ownerships are in line with democratic principles. “Absolutely not. For the functioning of democracy and securing freedom of speech, no person, politician or other, should be able to gather himself that kind of media power.”

Has Berlusconi made his career with his media might, then? Zanchetta thinks it has helped him, but says it’s unrealistic to think that his success is based on it. Tuomioja stresses that Berlusconi has used his power machinery to silence his opponents. “But one has to also note, that the opposition in Italy has been fairly week.”

The performance

How about Berlusconi’s political performance, has he delivered? “In some aspects you can say that he has, put people definitely still do expect more of him. The fact that he was re-elected despite all the controversies gives credit to some of his achievements,” Zanchetta says. Berlusconi has been praised for his work on taxation, immigration, the educational system as well promoting Italian interests abroad.

On foreign policy, Tuomioja mostly gives credit to Berlusconi’s foreign ministers. “I don’t remember him making any interventions in any meetings that would actually have led to an issue being solved.” Economywise, judging by the downward slide of the Italian economy, it looks like the business tycoon hasn’t been able to transfer all his know-how into leading his country.

As Tuomioja notes, more messages are coming from Italy that the people are ashamed of his actions, and his problems are seen to already damage Italy. What keeps his head above water then? Zanchetta notes that most of the people are aware of his questionable actions, but some of the critique we see is one-sided and intentionally used against him in the politically divided country. “He still presents himself as a reformist and bringer of broad-scale change, and that’s what people want,“ she explains.

The future?

The decision by Italy’s constitutional court on 8 October to drop Berlusconi’s immunity shelter comes amidst calls for his resignation by his opponents. Zanchetta believes that the decision will cause trouble for him, as the opposition will push for the corruption cases to go into court right away, thus making it hard for him to concentrate on his work.

Tuomioja’s goes on to hoping that this will be the political end of Berlusconi. “Thus far he has been able to escape these allegations, and one important question will be, how his own party is going to act. His way of dealing with things is not approved by the majority, and then there are also his private scandals that have led to a drift with the Vatican as well.”

For many, bringing down Berlusconi is not the main thing, however: “Many people in Italy think that the judiciary system needs to be reformed. Leaving aside the issue of Berlusconi’s honesty, many people suspect that politicians and some judges are intertwined,” Zanchetta notes.  

“It’s undisputable that he has his hands in many things, and that he lacks some transparencies. But the majority of the people believe that the political system in general is the main problem, and that attacking him personally won’t lead to real progress,“ Zanchetta sums up. Moral is expected from the politicians, but promises of reform are valued even more.

Considering his story so far, Berlusconi just might fight to see the end of his current five-year term – collecting a few more adversaries along the way, while keeping a smile on his face. He is, after all, “the greatest leader in the country’s history”.