A serious soap opera

September 17, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published on the FT on Sept 17 2009

Trembling with excitement, the 19-year-old party activist leaped to her feet as Silvio Berlusconi finally entered the outdoor arena to the applause of the assembled crowd that had waited patiently for over an hour with the sun setting behind Rome’s Colosseum.

Her boyfriend with crew cut and black jacket (“he’s a bit of a Fascist you know,” she jokes) and the middle-aged woman beside her joined in the frenzy. Already standing, the national anthem launched the youth rally organised by his new People of Liberty party.

In permanent campaign mode, Mr Berlusconi mixes jokes about football and beautiful women and reels off his government’s achievements since routing the centre-left Democratic party in last year’s elections, the foreign highlight being a five-hour telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin in which he says he persuaded the Russian leader to halt his tanks short of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, a year ago.

Despite his other successes — which apparently include persuading president George W. Bush to launch a massive rescue operation of US banks after Lehman Brothers fell, as well as saving Naples from its garbage crisis and building new homes in record quick time for the victims of Abruzzo’s earthquake, commentators in public and allies in private are muttering about “end of an era” and a need for change.

Talk of early elections is starting to make headlines as his coalition partners hurl insults at each other and question his leadership in what appears as an ominous re-run of the collapse of his first government in just eight months in 1994.

Four months of unrelenting coverage by opposition newspapers of the prime minister’s alleged dalliances with prostitutes at bacchanalian parties are taking their toll. Surrounded by self-serving admirers and glamorous women he might be, some of his allies fear he is without real friends or good advice.

On the ground however, the billionaire media mogul soon to turn 73 maintains his celebrity status. He has come out of his summer break in combative mood, issuing writs against newspapers for libel (suing them to save press freedom, he says) and taking on powerful critics within the Church and his own party.

And last week he pronounced he had passed another historic landmark by overtaking the Christian Democrats’ post-war Alcide De Gasperi as Italy’s longest serving prime minister in notching up some seven years in office.

Dismissing the talk of scandal that began in May when his wife, Veronica Lario, accused him of “frequenting minors” and promoting show-girls as politicians, Mr Berlusconi says “most Italians privately wish they could be like me and recognise themselves in me and the way I behave.”

Many agree, Francesca, the 19-year-old activist, among them. “He is charismatic, successful and gets things done.” But what about the alleged womanising? “Lies,” she said. “They only make him stronger. He recovers, like Italy.”

Whether Italy really is recovering from its worst post-war recession amid mounting public debt and unemployment is open to debate but, with a media obsessed with personalities above policies and the main television channels either owned or influenced by Mr Berlusconi, scandals and political infighting provide a useful smokescreen to closing factories.

“Anyway, frankly,” Franco Frattini, foreign minister and Berlusconi loyalist, explains to the FT: “Italians don’t care if he paid a prostitute or not.”

For the record, Mr Berlusconi insists (most recently at a joint press conference with a poe-faced Spanish prime minister) that he had never paid for sex as that would deprive him of “the joy of conquest”. Still, while confessing “I am not a saint” he has not specifically denied spending the night of last November’s US elections with Patrizia D’Addario, a 42-year-old escort who says she recorded their encounter with her cellphone and was paid not by Mr Berlusconi but by Giampaolo Tarantini, a prosthetics entrepreneur under investigation for corruption.

“If (German chancellor) Angela Merkel was 72 and had parties with 20 young men with tattoos and muscles from the gym, on the night of Obama’s election instead of being at the US embassy, what would happen?” asks Concita de Gregorio, editor of L’Unita, formerly the organ of the Italian Communist Party and one of four newspapers being sued by the prime minister over several articles, one of which suggested he was impotent.

“Why aren’t there women in the streets protesting?” she asks.

Italy, she explains, is different. On one level the population is numbed by 20 years of television soap and more than 90 per cent of Italians do not read newspapers. What other country, she asks, would have given a state funeral to a tv quiz master, as it did last weekend for 85-year-old Mike Bongiorno, a former Berlusconi employee and cheerleader, but not to a long line of celebrated actors, designers or authors?

On a deeper level, she argues, Italy is different because its main protagonists are unchanged, unlike Spain for example where a new generation has led the country out of the Franco era.

“You have to look at the personalities, the dark forces, the Mafia, the Masconic lodges and the unexplained bombings of the past, and the secret services,” she says. “None of this has disappeared. The protagonists of all this are still here.”

But in Mr Berlusconi’s fierce counter-offensive she sees weakness, not strength.

“Berlusconi is someone very scared and very weak. When you become very aggressive in a democracy it is because you are in trouble,” she goes on. “He is very weak so this is a very dangerous situation. His isolation, fights with the Church, his party, Europe. His closest allies are Putin and Gaddafi. Is this not strange for a western country? He either buys people and things or closes them down.”

Mr Berlusconi, protected by a law passed a year ago giving him immunity while in office from what the government calls politically motivated courts, has renewed his attacks on anti-Mafia prosecutors in Naples and Palermo, accusing them of conspiracy.

Allies — including Angelino Alfano, justice minister and author of the immunity law – hastened to assure Italians that the government would not interfere in the course of justice. Nonetheless, Il Giornale, the main attack-dog in the Berlusconi media empire, has already sought to explain in editorials why new judicial investigations in Sicily could not possibly link the prime minister to the infamous Mafia killings of public prosecutors in the early 1990s, before he had even entered politics.

Two pending court cases also risk dragging Mr Berlusconi back into the uncomfortable glare of the judicial spotlight. Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, a co-founder of their original Forza Italia party in 1994 and former business associate, will soon have his appeal against his conviction for Mafia association. Also launching an appeal is Mr Berlusconi’s former UK lawyer, David Mills, found guilty in February and handed a four and a half year jail sentence for taking a $600,000 bribe for withholding court testimony about offshore investments of Mr Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding company.

Mr Berlusconi, originally a co-accused in the case, could not be prosecuted because of his immunity. This did not stop the judge, in releasing her findings for convicting Mr Mills, from opining that Mr Berlusconi had been the source of the bribe. He denies it.

Another key date is October 6 when the Constitutional Court is expected to rule on whether the legislation granting immunity to Mr Berlusconi, and three other holders of high office, was constitutional. Observers think it unlikely the court will reject the legislation totally.

“He will not fall because of the judiciary,” predicts Ms De Gregorio.

Neither do observers believe Mr Berlusconi will be brought down by reports that incriminating transcripts exist of intercepted telephone conversations between two ministers discussing details of the prime minister’s supposed liaisons. The tapes and documentation are said to have been destroyed by the judiciary for legal reasons, leaving no proof of their existence. Nonetheless allies still fear what might come next.

This sense that Mr Berlusconi is walking on thin ice, taken together with his continuing strong showing in opinion polls, is fuelling speculation that he might try to call a snap election. An electoral system of multiple lists would allow him to weed out dissenters in his own party at the same time as the walking wounded of the opposition centre-left Democrats try to find their third leader in two years.

Umberto Bossi, leader of the right-wing Northern League that gives Mr Berlusconi’s coalition a majority in the upper house of parliament, has also brandished the threat of early polls. The resurgent Northern League, whose more extreme fringe still yearns for secession of the north, withdrew its support to bring down Mr Berlusconi’s first government in 1994.

Meanwhile Mr Berlusconi cannot ignore the power of conservative Italian bishops, still smarting from the forced resignation of the editor of their newspaper after a smear campaign led by Il Giornale. Once again there is talk of a renewed effort by the Church to form a “grand centre” party.

Mr Frattini denies elections are on the cards. “I know Berlusconi quite well. He is a fighter,” he says. “The more you try to de-legitimise him by false allegations, the more you make him stronger.”

Standing in the way of fresh elections is the generally respected figure of Giorgio Napolitano, the 84-year-old head of state whose assent would be required. A former communist, Mr Napolitano is also aware of what is widely believed to be Mr Berlusconi’s ultimate ambition – to step into his shoes as president and see out a seven-year term (with continued immunity) while overseeing a pliant heir as prime minister.

Mr Napolitano’s term and that of the current parliament both expire in the spring of 2013. Unless Mr Napolitano steps down early for reasons of age or ill health – and associates say he is determined to hang on to thwart Mr Berlusconi – then the next president will be elected by the next parliament. Observers say that if Mr Berlusconi really does have his eye on that post then it would be in his interest to get a new parliament in place to elect a new president when called for.

Such complex calculations help explain the cut-throat nature of Italian politics where only one post-war government (Mr Berlusconi’s from 2001 to 2006) has served out its full term. This has been highlighted by the ferocity of attacks led by Vittorio Feltri, editor of Il Giornale, on Gianfranco Fini, a long time ally and one of several contenders for high office.

Mr Fini, who merged his formerly neo-fascist National Alliance with Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to create the People of Liberty this year, has fought back against Il Giornale, accusing the new party of a lack of democracy and needing a “change of direction”.

“Fini sees the end of Berlusconi and is positioning himself for the aftermath,” says Ms De Gregorio.

But with the ultimate survivor playing out the real-life version of Big Brother (another production company he controls) no one is willing to predict quite when.

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