FOREIGNERS look at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, see a ridiculous old goat with megalomaniacal tendencies and a history of white-collar crime, and wonder why so many Italians keep voting for him.
Those who donâ€™t vote for him explain that he controls most of the countryâ€™s television networks â€” and that his antics actually appeal to that considerable section of the population who dream of being rich and brazen enough to get away with blatant public misbehaviour.
Until recently Berlusconi looked completely invulnerable, but in last weekendâ€™s elections for the parliament of the European Union only 35% of Italians voted for his People of Freedom party.Â He had predicted that 45% would. Is it possible that Italians are turning away from â€œIl Cavaliereâ€ at last?
The source of the funds that let him become a major real estate developer and then a multi-billionaire media magnate remains obscure. Accusations that he had links with the mafia have never been properly refuted. Prosecutions against him for corruption and bribery have been stalled by his lawyers until they expired because of the statute of limitations. (In some cases, he used his political power to move the expiry date up.) But having an affair with an 18-year-old may have been a step too far.
Silvio Berlusconi is 72 years old, but his hair transplant and perma-tan make him look younger. His habit with surrounding himself with attractive young women has long been indulged by Italian voters, although it clearly annoyed his wife, Veronica Lario. When he publicly told former showgirl (and now cabinet minister) Mara Carfagna that â€œIâ€™d marry you like a shot if I wasnâ€™t married alreadyâ€ in 2007, Lario demanded and got a public apology.
This time, however, she demanded a divorce. As Berlusconiâ€™s sense of invulnerability has grown, he has thrown caution to the winds. In April, he drove to the outskirts of Naples to attend the birthday party of 18-year-old Noemi Letizia and gave her a gold necklace worth thousands of dollars. She calls him â€œPapiâ€ (Daddy), which would be awkward enough if it were true (since he has been married to Veronica Lario for 30 years), but his relationship with Letizia may not be paternal.
It subsequently emerged that Berlusconi flew Letizia, then 17, over to his private estate on Sardinia last Christmas. Her ex-boyfriend alleged that Berlusconi had phoned her out of the blue after seeing her photographs in a model agencyâ€™s brochure. At this point Veronica Larioâ€™s patience finally snapped: she told the media that she was disgusted by his behaviour and that she would not remain the wife of â€œa man who consorts with under-aged girlsâ€.
Berlusconi tried to shrug it off as usual, offering a series of increasingly implausible explanations for how he came to know the girl, but this time something was different. Despite the tight control he exercises over his own media and also the state-owned channels, the story could not be contained, and many Italians who had tolerated all his previous peccadilloes felt that this time he had gone too far. Hence the sharp fall in the Freedom Partyâ€™s vote this time. But is this the start of a major shift in Italian politics, or only a blip on the graph? If I were a betting man, Iâ€™d bet on the blip.
The Italian â€œeconomic miracleâ€ ended 25 years ago, and the Italian state is all but broke. Fiscal irresponsibility has been the hallmark of almost all Italian governments since 1945, and the country only avoided the dire consequences of that by continuously devaluing the lira and inflating its debts away. Since it swapped the lira for the euro, however, that escape hatch has been closed.
Few voters are willing to bear the intense and long-lasting pain that would be involved in putting Italy back on the fiscal straight-and-narrow. No sane politician wants the responsibility of imposing that pain on the country. So the field is left clear for political conjurors like Berlusconi, magical thinkers who can persuade themselves and everyone else that everything will be all right.
The affair with the 17-year-old is embarrassing, but it will be mostly forgotten by the time there is another national election in Italy, and Berlusconi has already discovered his next populist platform. He is going to become Italyâ€™s defender against the immigrant hordes. â€œWhat immigrant hordes?â€ you could reasonably ask, for only 4% of Italyâ€™s residents are foreign-born. But Berlusconi knew exactly what he was doing when he said in an election speech: â€œWhen I walk down the streets of Milan and I see the large numbers of non-Italians, I feel like am no longer in an Italian or a European city but in an African one.â€
Up till now, openly racist talk has been the specialty of Berlusconiâ€™s coalition partners in the Northern League, but Il Cavaliere is going to steal their clothes. He will be around for quite a while yet, and the day of reckoning will be postponed yet again.
lDyer is a London-based independent journalist.
BY GWYNNE DYER