Will Berlusconi Sing the Blues?


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Two weeks ago, many major European bookmakers were confidently predicting the defeat of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Centre-Right Government in this weekend’s (9-10 April) Italian general elections. A further positive omen for the opposition Parties was the Government’s crushing defeat in the March 2005 regional elections, when the Centre-Left opposition won control of 12 out of 14 Italian regions.

Contingency plans for life after Silvio are already being openly discussed by his fractious political allies. And Silvio, the consummate master of media communication, is reported to be finally losing his cool following his disappointing performance in a televised debate with opposition rival Romano Prodi on March.

My friend Riccardo, an opposition supporter, is not quite so sanguine about the outcome. When he suggested we look for a pub in Fremantle to watch the election results on satellite TV next Monday, I told him about David Williamson’s play Don’s Party, where, on the night of the 1969 Australian Federal election, a group of diehard Whitlam Labor supporters get together for an election party, only to have their hopes dashed.

I lived in Italy from 2002 to 2003, during the build-up to and outbreak of war in Iraq, as Berlusconi tightened his grip on the Italian media. In a recent article, The Guardian’s Martin Jacques, wrote that Berlusconi ‘has changed the law of the land at will using his majority in the Italian Parliament to protect his personal interests and save himself from the courts.’

In the English-speaking world there is a tendency to view the political scene in Italy as a kind of amusing freak show. Yet the Basil Fawlty approach to Italian politics masks many of the real questions Berlusconi’s Italy poses for western democracies.

Paul Ginsborg, the leading authority on the political history of post-war Italy, has no doubts about the significance of the election outcome. In the final paragraph of his recent political biography of the Italian Prime Minister, he writes:

If Berlusconi wins again, there can be no doubt that he will establish a full fledged politico-media regime in the heart of Europe. The outcome will have more than one implication for the future of international democracy.

For anyone who has spent time in Berlusconi’s Italy, recent Government attacks on the ABC and the BBC in Australia and the UK for alleged anti-American bias or for their failure to echo the Government’s pro-war line, are chillingly familiar, and seem part of a generalised global campaign against public broadcasting. The Berlusconi phenomenon poses a central question about the significance of media ownership in a democratic society. Ginsborg claims a ‘global media oligarchy’ is increasingly shaping political consensus through a ‘deeply conformist, repetitive and uncritically consumer-oriented television system.’

From this perspective, Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher linked together in the 1970s as ‘two faces of the same relentless neo-liberal drive towards deregulation and the concentration of power,’ with Murdoch gaining control of British satellite television and 36 per cent of print media. In the United States, billionaire politicians like Mike Bloomberg, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes have effectively ‘spent their way into office by buying unprecedented amounts of TV time.’ Thailand’s media mogul now ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra represents a kind of Asian version of Berlusconi, while elsewhere, independent media seems increasingly under siege.

For Ginsborg, ‘TV broadcasting and advertisements have become the most powerful cultural instruments of our time,’ shaping ‘a global culture of conspicuous consumption in which TV channels communicate a particular view of the normal and the possible.’ In India under the former Hindu fundamentalist BJP Government, and in contemporary Italy and Russia, TV has become an overt means of political indoctrination. In other societies, TV is ‘highly damaging to the possibilities of creating an alternative everyday politics’ through its ‘extraordinary power to tie people to their homes.’

One genuine cause for optimism in the upcoming election is that many expatriate Italian citizens will be allowed to cast their votes from overseas, for the first time ever. One result of the epic 20th century story of Italian global migration is that there are now almost as many people of Italian origin living overseas as the 57 million who live in Italy. Over three million members of this Italian diaspora will elect 18 members to the Italian Senate and Lower House or Chamber of Deputies.

Italian voters overseas have been divided up into four mega-electorates: Europe (outside Italy), North America, South America and the rest: Africa, Asia and Oceania (including Australia). Marco Fedi, a social worker and a Melbourne-based candidate for the Centre-Left opposition group Unione Prodi, says his battle for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies will be won or lost in Australia. The lion’s share of voters from the fourth global electorate is Australian, about 110,000 out of a total of 150,000. Fedi, who emigrated to Australia from central Italy in 1983, comments that this will be the first time many Italian emigrés in Australia will vote in any election, Australian or Italian.

There are two factors which Fedi hopes will play in his favour on April 10. Firstly, in Australian elections, the Italian community traditionally leans towards Labor. Secondly, in the elections to COMITES, the consultative body for overseas Italians, the Centre-Left in Australia usually wins about 70 per cent of the vote.

Yet the outcome here is as difficult to predict as the main event back in Italy. Being the first time Italian political Parties have campaigned in Australia, it is difficult to gauge how much Italian voters in Australia will engage with political agendas determined by events on the other side of the world. Personal factors, such as how well each candidate is known within their community are thus likely to play a decisive role, while some key issues are likely to be Australian Government funding for Italian retirement homes in Australia and the much-vexed issue of dual citizenship.

Just like in Italy, the Australian branch of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party clearly outclasses any of its competitors in terms of election funding. Election ads are appearing in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and on English-language radio stations, in addition to SBS radio and the local Italian-language press.

Berlusconi’s currrent claims that Prodi will raise taxes if elected recalls John Howard’s hugely successful scare campaign on interest rates in last year’s Australian election. In Monday night’s final face-to-face debate between Berlusconi and Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister even made a last minute offer to abolish a tax on home ownership currently used to fund Italian local councils. Opposition leader Prodi insists that a Centre-Left government would not raise taxes, but rather crack down on those who do not pay them.

In Italy, a succession of Governments (including the current one) have turned a blind eye to the national vice of tax evasion, thus creating, according to Paul Ginsborg, ‘a central block of self-employed professionals, small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers who have defrauded the State on a massive and habitual basis.’

Berlusconi and his Fininvest company are themselves no strangers to tax investigations. In 1998, he was sentenced to two years and nine months jail in a case involving bribery of officers in the Italian Fiscal Police. However, under Italian law, no sentence can be enforced until all avenues of appeal are exhausted. In 2000, the Italian Appe
al Court again found him guilty on appeal, while in October 2001 (soon after being re-elected as Prime Minister), Italy’s final court of appeal, (the Court of Cassation) upheld convictions against Berlusconi’s co-accused, including Finninvest’s Director of Tax Affairs, while acquitting Berlusconi himself.

Meanwhile, Down Under, in a curious local reprise of Berlusconi’s inimitably populist campaign style, potential voters in Italian clubs all over the country are being regaled with the Forza Italia Show, a travelling political roadshow featuring Italo-Australian singer John St Peters.

Stephen Bennetts will report on the outcome of the Italian elections in New Matilda 86.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.