Gianfranco Fini, one-time neo-fascist and political ally of Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, launched a blistering attack on him yesterday in what is being seen as the beginning of the end of their tumultuous 15-year political relationship, which consists at the moment of Fini propping up Berlusconi’s lame-duck government.
In an aggressive speech in which he even went so far as to ridicule Berlusconi’s continual involvement in financial, sex and drug scandals, Fini denounced
the “moral decay” which he said had resulted from a “loss of decorum and rigor in the behavior of those who, as public figures, are required to set an example.” He went on to threaten Berlusconi with the withdrawal of his parliamentary party's support, support which is crucial to Berlusconi if he is to stay in power.
Apart from the political implications of that speech and the fact that Fini is in no position to give anyone moral lessons – not even Berlusconi – (see below), what is he criticizing? What is the decay he is talking about?
Silvio Berlusconi has achieved what was previously thought to be the impossible in a modern western democracy. He runs Italy single-handedly. He heavily influences everything that happens in it, he behaves with total disrespect for the law, and he ensures that much of the opposition to him is muzzled. There is no popular revolt against him and even if an election were to be held tomorrow the people would not necessarily evict him.
The most recent of the many sex scandals which have implicated Berlusconi – without ever damaging him however – is the ongoing “Bunga Bunga”
affair which involves lavish parties thrown by Berlusconi with drug-taking and after-dinner sex between the invitees being the main attractions. They were revealed by a 17-year-old belly-dancer from Morocco called Karima Keyek, upon whom Berlusconi lavished gifts and cash. She lived with a prostitute, was jailed for stealing from her, and was subsequently freed, allegedly thanks to Berlusconi’s personal intervention during which he discreetly demanded that she be set free because she was “related to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.”
Another major scandal was the obscure relationship
he had with Noémie Laetizia, a minor who Berlusconi would invite over to his various homes. These invitations included a week at his Sardinian villa, where photos of the couple taken by the paparazzi were confiscated by the Prosecutor’s Office in Rome. There was also the D’Addario escort girl affair
in which escort girl Patrizia D'Addario claimed to have tape-recordings which proved that Berlusconi paid call girls to have sex with him. There are other scandals but there are too many to list here.
Clinton’s mini-escapade with a White House secretary is a drop in the ocean in comparison, as are any other minor sexual missteps committed in the West.
The dozens of affairs which connect him to the Sicilian Mafia are a constant source of irritation for his opponents, but not for Berlusconi himself as he has never been in serious trouble on that score and is widely believed to have pulled his judicial system strings to scare judges off or have them moved to other assignments.
The same is true for his legendary ‘business flair’, which, again, has been largely left unchallenged because of his connections. Conflicts of interest, the introduction of legislation specifically designed to keep the justice system and its allegations and court cases related to alleged financial misdealing and monopolistic practices at bay, his false testimony in the P2 Masonic lodge membership scandal involving prominent business, military, political and secret service personalities, wiretapping – you name it, his name crops up in it.
But the crowning glory of his web of influence – and perhaps the most important – is his almost total control over the country’s most powerful media interests. This stranglehold on the country’s media is so effective that he has been accused by many press freedom organizations of being responsible for the fact that Italy has now been officially classified as a country with limited freedom of expression – the only case of its kind in the West. He is widely believed to control 90% of Italy’s national media and has stifled all legislative efforts to loosen his grip.
His tactics include firing those in his empire who have ‘dissident’ opinions, forcing resignations, taking TV stations and newspapers to court (and winning), cutting off most of the advertising revenue received by newspapers from companies in his sprawling business empire if they offend him, thus forcing their submission or closure, using his empire to criticize the judges, the legal system, the police investigations. He also refuses to allow the screening of anything which resembles criticism of anything he does or says.
That is what Berlusconi does and is. He uses his power to subjugate most of the opposition in Italy. He is running a de-facto
Why have the Italian people let him get away with his actions for so long, both in elections and in their en-masse refusal to demand his resignation? The underlying answer is to be found in the fact that Italy, like France and Spain, is a Catholic Latin country. As such it has a history of patriarchal and autocratic leadership, and indeed to this day you will find many Italians, Spaniards and French people who support the point of view which goes “A country like ours needs strong leadership, even if it means curtailing people’s freedoms, if not a country like this would be ungovernable.”
From France’s impenetrable ruling classes to Spain’s Franco and Italy’s Mussolini, Latin countries have often been ruled in this way. Silvio Berlusconi knows that very well and uses it to his own advantage.
As for Gianfranco Fini’s attacks on him yesterday, they should be put into perspective. Firstly he is in no position to claim the moral high ground having himself been the object of real estate scams, most notably one involving a condo in Monte Carlo. That affair was brought to light by the press (yes, you guessed correctly – Berlusconi’s press,) whose campaign, motivated by a temporary falling-out between them, ensured that Fini was forced to sell it.
Fini’s political aims are also worth looking at. His new political party, the FLI, is still in the process of organizing itself and garnering support where it can, which means that if an election were held soon because of his withdrawal of support for Berlusconi he would lose to – Berlusconi.
That is why although he is distancing himself from Berlusconi, he knows that the moment is not ripe for an all-out palace revolution in view of electoral victory. That in turn is why he also made clear yesterday that he will continue to support Berlusconi’s government if it changes its policies.
It is widely believed however that Berlusconi will refuse to do that and will instead challenge Fini to bring down his government in parliament, a move which he knows Fini would not make in all probability.
In other words, it is by no means clear that Berlusconi’s capacity to run the country has been damaged beyond repair. He has taken hits in the past only to come back bigger and stronger than before because he is a master of the fine art of political maneuvering. Don’t count him out yet.
So, if your (Western) country can claim the same credentials and leadership style as Italy’s then yes, agreed, you live in an autocratic dictatorship and I’ll change my headline to reflect that reality.