Italy has for some time now been the butt of many of its European neighbours’ jokes regarding the antics of its longstanding prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
The name Berlusconi, for most of us, evokes a controversial public figure famous for his sexual exploits and inappropriate comments. In fact, you don’t have to search extensively on Google to find that almost every British newspaper has a top ten list of “Il Cavaliere” Berlusconi’s biggest blunders, of which here is a sample.
During his 2006 presidential campaign Berlusconi described himself as the “Jesus Christ of politics”. On a separate occasion, he asserted, “There is no-one on the world stage who can compete with me.”
In reference to Mussolini he is quoted as saying, “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile”.
On history: “The founders of Rome were Romulus and Remulus “, hence mis-naming Remus.
To evoke his much-publicized favoritism of particularly young, particularly beautiful and sometimes particularly well-paid girls, Berlusconi’s ex-wife cited “consorts with minors” amongst other motives for their divorce.
The Prime Minister is recognized as the 3rd richest man in Italy. He is the major shareholder in Mediaset, the largest broadcasting network in the country. He owns 3 out of 7 public television channels, various newspapers, the AC Milan football club, the publisher Mondadori and the largest advertising company in Italy, Publitalia. He is regularly accused of using the media for his own personal benefit, and The Economist published various articles declaring him unsuitable as Prime Minister due to his contradicting interests. Berlusconi found fit to counter such critiques with a dubious reasoning: “If I, taking care of everyone’s interests, also take care of my own, you can’t talk about a conflict of interest.”
All politicians have infamous comic gaffes that mark their career, whether improving or altogether destroying it. Yet, it seems that Berlusconi’s case is rather more unique. Such controversial comments provoke shock, disbelief, laughter and probably to a certain extent a sense of relief that this man is not in power in our country. However, it would be a lack of understanding to simply call Berlusconi ignorant or stupid. This is an individual who knows his public and his supporters. After all, being elected Prime Minister three times must surely mean that he is doing something right?
To his adoring public, Berlusconi is a self-made man and entrepreneur from a lower middle-class background. He represents the typical “rags to riches” story and is idolized for a lifetime of hard work and commitment that has culminated in many successful businesses and a glittering political career. Undoubtedly a captivating figure, it isn’t hard to see why many have been taken in by his charm.
However, it is hard to overlook the many accusations of embezzlement, bribery and questionable mafia connections. Indeed, Berlusconi has been found guilty on charges of false testimony, money laundering and false accounting. He has never been prosecuted successfully on any of the above charges due to amnesties passed and a series of law changes imposed by his government (including new laws on false accounting and trial-delaying “statute of limitation”).
Whilst living in Italy last year, I was asked on various occasions about the European and British opinions of Berlusconi, and I had to admit that he is not taken seriously and often ridiculed by the press. Yet, seeing the day-to-day impact of Berlusconi’s power on the Italian public, and witnessing how the media is used as a propaganda tool, it becomes harder to laugh light-heartedly at the expense of the Italians. There exists a sense of national shame and indignity amongst those who are opposed to Berlusconi. Nevertheless, since there is little realistic competition from other parties for office, there is therefore no obvious alternative to Berlusconi. Italy’s prospects for the future remain uncertain, whilst the rest of Europe and the press anticipates the Prime Ministers’ next slip-up.