The End of Silvio?

Italian politics for a lot of people is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) something of a spectator sport. So when the spectacle of Silvio Berlusconi’s ministers pulling out of Prime Minister Letta’s cabinet began in earnest, I was fairly certain of what to expect. Berlusconi would probably use his leverage as a way to save his political career before a court in Milan kicked him out of power altogether. Either he would cut a deal with Enrico Letta for some kind of reprieve, or he would take his plan to its logical conclusion: taking down the government and forcing new elections in the process. But then, something peculiar happened: Berlusconi lost. More specifically, he lost control of his party. Instead of being yet another demonstration of Silvio Berlusconi’s immense power over the Italian government, this move instead became a fiasco that took Enrico Letta’s shaky coalition and strengthened it far beyond what anyone would have expected. Italy it seems may finally be stepping out of the long shadow that Silvio has cast over a twenty year political career.

Image courtesy of Andres Ubierna, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Andres Ubierna, © 2010, some rights reserved.

To an outside observer, ascribing Mr Berlusconi’s recent failure to a lack of control may seem rather odd. After all, between the sex scandals, outrageous behaviour, and seemingly pedestrian attitude, he seems to be the last person you would associate with a disciplined political machine. In truth however, while he is a very easy man to mock, he is also the man who has arguably defined Italian politics in a way that no other modern Italian politician has. In a country infamous for a fast government turnover, Silvio Berlusconi has seen three stints (of varying lengths) as Prime Minister, making him by far the longest serving Prime Minister in Italy’s post-war history. The reasons for this remarkable success are often varied. As one of Italy’s richest men, Berlusconi has the means to get elected on his own at his disposal, especially considering his fortune was largely built off the back of the Mediaset Group, a mass media company that remains by far the largest commercial broadcaster in the country. However, one should also not discount Silvio Berlusconi’s own personal charisma. While his swagger and overbearing personality made him an easy target for satirists, that confidence has given his campaigns a certain charm that his opponents on the left have never been able to match.

Berlusconi has also demonstrated remarkable political survival skills that have kept him in politics despite numerous setbacks. His first term as Prime Minister was disastrous. His coalition with the borderline separatist Northern League and the post-fascist National Alliance was inherently contradictory and as a result, he was forced to resign within months of his election. While his later two times as Prime Minister were greeted with comparatively greater success, both failed spectacularly. In addition to his rocky political career, Berlusconi has been beset by numerous scandals in all shapes and sizes. Silvio Berlusconi has an extensive record of criminal allegations, many of which have gone to trial. Between his alleged Mafia connections, bribery cases, sex scandals which have included soliciting minors, and tax evasion, Silvio Berlusconi has had no shortage of legal troubles. Despite these obstacles however, Berlusconi has continued to remain a potent political force. After his resignation in 2011, during Italy’s debt crisis, Berlusconi was able to retain control of his political party, giving him a base with which to bounce back. By the 2013 general elections, Berlusconi competed against the centre-left coalition and Beppe Grillo’s movement and performed surprisingly well, allowing him to form a coalition with Enrico Letta’s government. For many, this success was further proof that Berlusconi’s famous survival skills made him all but invulnerable.

However, that invulnerability may not be the case for much longer.  In the end, it was Berlusconi’s criminal convictions that were the impetus for his latest demise. After being convicted of tax fraud in October of last year, Berlusconi attempted to appeal the rulings. After that failed and the Italian President failed to give Berlusconi a position as a lifetime senator; Berlusconi made one last gamble and tried to bring down the government. However, as we know, that attempt failed after many in Berlusconi’s party ended up defecting to Mr. Letta’s side, including Berlusconi’s heir apparent Angelino Alfano. This final betrayal has now sounded the death knell for Berlusconi’s immediate political career. As of October 19, a court in Milan has ruled that Silvio Berlusconi will be banned from public office for two years. Next month, a vote will take place in the Senate on whether or not to expel him from that body, if it proves successful, Berlusconi will not only face the consequences of his tax fraud conviction but also the fact that his loss of immunity will make him more vulnerable in other on-going criminal cases.

In the long run, it is unlikely that Silvio Berlusconi can survive much longer. At 77 years old, he is already getting to the point where his strength as a political brand can really only wane over time as younger leaders take up the mantle of centre right populism that he built. Furthermore, his likely expulsion from public office will only further erode his already tenuous control over his party. His removal will not be immediate; a man with that kind of money and influence in Italian politics simply cannot disappear overnight. Even if he continues to linger in the Italian consciousness as a public figure however, his defeat in early October nonetheless can be seen as the beginning of the end of his era. What will take his place remains uncertain, but for the time being, it would seem that Berlusconi has finally reached the end of his famed seven lives.

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