Silvio’s House of Cards

‘Italy's real problem isn't Berlusconi's private affairs. Rather, the problem is the culture he now represents. ’

How frightening is a failing democracy? If you want to find out, you don’t need to look far. You only have to go to Italy.And no, you probably won’t shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well. After all, this is Italy.” Gone are the days when a bit of corruption here and a conflict of interest there could be swept under the carpet with the phrase “non c’e niente da fare” (“there’s nothing to be done”). This is what I encountered on my recent trip to Rome.

It had just rained for the first time after a long summer, a summer that seemed to have become hotter and steamier by the day — at least for Silvio Berlusconi. Stories about his affairs with girls — some of them of school age, others escorts invited to lavish parties on yachts and at his Sardinian villa that sound suspiciously like orgies — have rapidly escalated from tabloid gossip to a criminal investigation. It is already clear that the Italian Prime Minister has been taking incredible risks, which have already cost him his marriage and what was left of his credibility abroad.  The stream of allegations and his very public divorce have created a picture of a leader in trouble. 

This is in sharp contrast with his self-image. “I am Superman!” he declared. Every Italian wanted to be “young and handsome” like him, his only offence being that “I love, above all, beautiful women.” He was also keen to prove, if necessary in court, that he was not impotent, as one newspaper had alleged. Standing next to his Spanish counterpart, he boasted: “I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150-year history.” With megalomania came paranoia: dire threats against the “Catholic-Communist” forces plotting against him. His mouthpiece Il Giornale even lashed out at Gianfranco Fini, his chief political ally and likely successor, for (improbably) flirting with the Left. Denying that he had ever paid for sex — “the joy is in the conquest” — the downmarket Don Giovanni appeared to be losing the plot of this real-life Italian opera.

The Vatican, meanwhile, preferred to imply rather than express its disdain. Though the Pope lives less than a mile away from the Prime Minister, the two have not met for more than a year — an eternity even in the Eternal City. A Mass followed by a banquet with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, that Berlusconi had hoped would begin his rapprochement with the Church, was cancelled at short notice. Yet there was no open criticism of Berlusconi’s actions, at least not from the highest officials in the Vatican. Considering this was an institution that hasn’t always been so reserved, the silence seemed baffling.

“The Vatican thinks in centuries, not in days or stories as you do,” a seasoned observer of the Vatican told me when we met near St Peter’s Square. What, he wondered, would the Pope have to gain from upbraiding the Prime Minister for his moral turpitude? There have already been snide remarks in Berlusconi’s newspapers about Benedict’s “mitteleuropean” accent. After all, Berlusconi is not only a political leader, billionaire and media tycoon, but also a 73-year-old with a pacemaker and an operation for prostate cancer behind him. He may disappear sooner rather than later, and his political programme with him, for he has not built a party with the tradition and roots of those of both the far Left and the far Right. “In other words”, said my contact, “Berlusconi is a phenomenon much like a house of cards.” 

It is all too easy to forget — paradoxically, when you’re standing in St Peter’s Square — that the Pope is a global moral authority. No one knows this better than Benedict XVI himself. And no one recognises the full worth of this better than Berlusconi. When stories about his private life reached their peak, Berlusconi chose to attack the Church, albeit indirectly through Vittorio Feltri, the editor-in-chief of Il Giornale, which is owned by the PM’s family. In the row, Feltri accused Dino Boffo, the editor of the Catholic paper Avvenire, of being a homosexual who made harassing phone calls to his lover’s fiancé (he used much cruder language). Boffo protested his innocence, but resigned. Berlusconi’s offensive against the Church caused much amazement. To take on the Church to which the great majority of Italians at least nominally belong, not to mention a billion other Catholics worldwide, wasn’t a particularly savvy move, one commentator told me.

Has Berlusconi lost his legendary survival instinct? Most Italians don’t think so. They say many things about their Prime Minister, the most common and also the most revealing being that he is un giocatore, a player. Sitting on a terrace on an estate on the outskirts of Rome, a grande dame of Italian society told me about her first encounter with the most powerful man in Italy, then known only as Silvio: “Well, this was years ago at the beach, when we were young. He proposed a deal: I was to give him the phone number of my beautiful cousin, and he was going to pay me with an ice cream. Of course, I never saw the ice cream.” Her last encounter with him wasn’t much more fortunate. Berlusconi didn’t show up at a dinner she had organised in honour of the distinguished former leader of a friendly country. When she didn’t receive an apology, she inquired the next day, only to find out that the Prime Minister had been seen at a different party, surrounded not by heads of state but Russian girls. The no-show was part of a pattern of dereliction of his official duties.

Un giocatore means not just a player, but a gambler. Some Italians say this of Berlusconi with anger, others with envy and even a kind of respect. Berlusconi seems capable of having his cake and eating it, with gusto. What does that mean for his politics? He is not losing his game with the Church, quite the contrary: with this opponent he is able to keep his cards dangerously close to his chest. Will this develop into a full-scale church-state Kulturkampf, such as Italy (like France, Germany and other continental countries) had in the 19th century? Not unless the Vatican decides to drop Berlusconi in favour of a new Catholic party led by Rocco Buttiglione, who is close to the Pope.

Of course, Berlusconi’s aides calculate that, in the long run, the Vatican will judge him by his legislation on ethical issues such as euthanasia rather than by his private affairs. At the top of the autumn agenda is a bill closing loopholes in “right to die” legislation which at present allows patients to refuse treatment. However, his mudslinging may turn out to be a particularly clever strategy in which the Church is pushed into a no-win situation. Either it gets involved, and risks being encumbered with petty arguments, or it remains apart and not only absorbs further attacks by Berlusconi but also criticism, from closer quarters, of silence unbecoming. Meanwhile, Berlusconi can continue as usual, and keep the real scandals — the political ones — hidden in his closet.

Berlusconi’s aides know that support from Catholic voters is crucial to their government — but they also know that Berlusconi hardly faces a viable alternative, let alone strong political opposition. He may be an old man in a hurry, but he still has the magic touch it needs to be the master of his house of cards. His virility may only be powered by verbal Viagra, but currently the appeal he creates with it is strong enough to divert attention from the political scandals which in any other Western country would put him on trial.

The one thing that Berlusconi might not reckon with is that the strongest opposition to his kind of politics could be the source of moral authority that he has always taken for granted: the Catholic Church. At a time when young Italians are fleeing the country in search of better education and job prospects, there is a yearning for someone to say: “Basta!” (“Enough!”) Doesn’t this call for the Church to recall its responsibility to stand in our way, to beseech us not to look away while continuing as we were?

On my last night in Rome I went to a party at one of the oldest estates in the city. “So, what are your views on your Prime Minister?” I asked a young Italian. “Well,” he smiled, “what can you do? Life goes on.” He shrugged his shoulders, but did admit to feeling slightly embarrassed and ashamed.

But Italy’s real problem isn’t Berlusconi’s private affairs (which — if they didn’t entail dire consequences — might be amusing material for an opera buffa). Rather, the problem is the culture he now represents. Berlusconi is suing various opposition papers, as well as El País and Le Nouvel Observateur and is threatening to sue British titles too. The last moderately critical television station, TG3, is now in his hands. In other words: it is now almost officially acceptable to have conflicts of interests, to not care about certain rules, to cross certain lines — all of which has created a climate in which indecency may be mistaken for common sense. Italy risks being stuck in apathy, if not in a conspiracy of silence. Why else was it so hard to find anybody who wanted to talk on the record? The question is how much longer this stifling silence will endure. In Italy, democracy seems suffocated or at least frighteningly silent. It might be peculiar to call on the Church to assist democracy, but if it takes its moral duty seriously, it is high time to break this silence. 

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