Citizen Kane on Steroids
Silvio Berlusconi wins, democracy loses in Italy
by Martin A. Lee
In These Times magazine, June 2001
A change of government in Italy is easy to ignore given that
it happens so often. But the May 13 ballot won by billionaire
media magnate Silvio Berlusconi warrants special attention. His
election as prime minister of Italy's 59th government since World
War 11 should trigger alarms in any self-respecting democracy.
A flamboyant demagogue with extremist allies, Berlusconi ran
as head of a far-right-tilting, populist coalition that embraced
openly racist and neofascist parties. The Italian media-mogul-turned-politician
compares himself to Napoleon, delights in ridiculing AIDS victims
and is chummy with Rupert Murdoch. Convicted four times on charges
of perjury, falsifying financial records, tax offenses and bribery,
Berlusconi has a shady track record with several criminal indictments
still pending. He was voted into high political office despite
allegations of Mafia connections and questions about how he acquired
his personal fortune.
A walking, talking conflict of interest, Berlusconi has his
fingers in practically every big-business pie in Italy. He is
one of the world's wealthiest men, presiding over a $14 billion
financial behemoth that includes Italy's biggest publishing house,
its leading advertising agency, its wealthiest department-store
chain, a major investment firm, extensive real estate holdings,
the country's top soccer club and, most significantly, Italy's
three main private television networks.
As prime minister, Berlusconi also will control Italy's three
public TV stations, thereby commanding the attention of 90 percent
of Italy's viewers. Nearly the entire broadcasting system in the
world's sixth-largest industrialized economy will effectively
rest in one man's hands. "It's a situation without precedent
in the Western world," says Giovanni Sartori, professor emeritus
of political science at Columbia University and a longtime observer
of Italian politics.
Likened to "Citizen Kane on steroids," Berlusconi
enjoys a concentration of power over information that exists in
no other democratic country. Without his domination of the airwaves,
he never would have emerged as a significant political figure
in Italy. "Sua Emittenza" ("His Transmittance"),
as Berlusconi is widely known, marshaled his opinion-molding
TV and print venues to demonize his adversaries and further
his own political ambitions. Blatantly biased "news"
broadcasts on Berlusconi's networks were virtually indistinguishable
from campaign ads and press releases hyping his candidacy.
During the campaign, Berlusconi was the most visible presence
on Italian TV, while his opponents received perfunctory coverage
at best. Because Italy's state television doesn't run political
commercials, Berlusconi's three national networks exercised a
virtual monopoly on election advertisements. His rivals were in
the unenviable position of having to shell out money to Berlusconi
or forsake TV ads. "This is the only country in the world
where the political parties must pay their political adversary
in order to run an election campaign," says Giuseppe Giulietti,
a parliamentary representative of the Left Democrats, the main
party of what is now Italy's center-left opposition.
Outspending their rivals by more than 20-to-1 and taking advantage
of disproportionate access to national media, Berlusconi's coalition
was able to secure absolute majorities in both houses of parliament.
His own party, Forza Italia, is the biggest vote-getter in the
Berlusconi's principal governing partner is Gianfranco Fini,
a suave, 49-year-old politician who cut his teeth as leader of
the Italian Social Movement (MSI), Europe's oldest neofascist
party. Berlusconi publicly aligned himself with Fini before the
MSI chief gave his organization a face-lift and renamed it the
National Alliance in 1995. The National Alliance recently grabbed
11 percent of the vote, ensuring that Fini will be deputy prime
minister in the new regime.
Fini claims that he is now a mainstream conservative, but
the identity of his party remains inextricably bound up in its
fascist heritage. Despite Fini's attempts to distance himself
from the most extreme elements of the National Alliance, many
of its members still harbor nostalgia for Mussolini's Blackshirts.
Francesco Storace, Fini's close associate and National Alliance
president of the Lazio region, wants to rewrite school textbooks,
which he says give a Leninist slant on Italian history.
Forza Italia also made an electoral pact in Sicily with Fiamma
Tricolore (Tricolor Flame), an unapologetically fascist sect.
Popular among skinheads and neo-Nazis, Fiamma Tricolore is
led by Pino Rauti, a veteran of the terrorist underground. Four
members of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), a neofascist group formed
by Rauti, are currently on trial for a 1969 bomb attack in Milan
that killed 16 people and injured 84 others.
And then there's Umberto Bossi, head of the xenophobic Northern
League, which holds the balance of power for the ruling coalition
in Italy's lower house of parliament, even though it polled only
4 percent of the vote. Bossi's crude and incessant immigrant-baiting
has drawn comparisons with Austrian far-right leader Jorg Haider,
who was among the first to congratulate Berlusconi for his electoral
triumph. Bossi has called for the Italian navy to shoot at ships
suspected of carrying undocumented immigrants into the country.
Strident anti-immigrant rhetoric was also a staple of Berlusconi's
campaign, while his TV stations stoked public anxiety by depicting
Italy as a nation overrun by foreign criminals.
Not surprisingly, the six criminal cases still pending against
Berlusconi haven't gotten much coverage on his networks. If his
legal wrangles are discussed at all on privately owned Italian
television, it is to provide an opportunity for Berlusconi to
lash out at his detractors. He claims that all such charges are
Communist-inspired slander. In the world according to Berlusconi,
"Communists eat babies" (his own words), and a conspiracy
of left-wing magistrates is hell-bent on undermining his mandate
to save Italy.
Portraying himself as an outsider who defeated the business
establishment, Berlusconi says he'll run the country as "ltaly
Inc."-applying the same energy and skills that made him a
successful entrepreneur. The myth of the self-made man is central
to Berlusconi's mystique, but there is no such thing as a self-made
billionaire, especially in a country like Italy. A former nightclub
crooner on Mediterranean cruise ships, Berlusconi built his business
empire not by bucking the establishment, but by paying it off.
Although he fashioned an image of himself as a maverick newcomer
untainted by the corrupt old guard of Italian governance, he owes
much of his success to a shadowy network of economic and political
In the late '70s, Berlusconi secretly joined Propaganda Due
(P-2), an elite, fascist-leaning masonic lodge that is often mentioned
in accounts of Italian intrigue. Described by Italian judges as
an illegal "state within a state," the P-2 had high-level
connections to Italian intelligence agencies, the armed forces,
leading financiers and captains of industry. P-2 members have
been implicated in nearly every major political scandal that has
shaken Italy since the mid-'60s-including neofascist bombings,
coup plots and a major smuggling operation that specialized in
arms and drugs, while laundering dirty cash through front companies
owned by the Vatican Bank.
Berlusconi's name was found on a list of P-2 initiates after
a 1981 police raid in Tuscany. Of the 963 names on the P-2 roster,
most were prominent Italians. The list also featured several dubious
characters from Argentina, including: Gen. Juan Peron, the former
president; Jose Lopez Rega, head of the Argentine Anti-Communist
Alliance, a notorious death squad; and Adm. Emilio Massera, a
member of the military junta responsible for the disappearance
of 30,000 people during the "dirty war" of the '70s
and early '80s.
Convicted of making false statements about his P-2 membership,
Berlusconi managed to escape unscathed from the scandal thanks
largely to Socialist Party chief Bettino Craxi, who became Italy's
prime minister in the mid-'80s. Craxi was the best man at Berlusconi's
second wedding, and both men were adept at exploiting the lucrative
system of political patronage and illicit pay-offs that flourished
in postwar Italy. Craxi was instrumental in thwarting early attempts
to rein in Berlusconi's media outlets, and Berlusconi, in turn,
actively promoted Craxi on his TV stations.
During this period, Craxi and other right-wing political leaders
in Italy knew they could count on unflinching support from Washington,
which propped up a political order that was riddled with corruption
in an all-out effort to keep the sizable Italian Communist Party
from gaining power. But when the Cold War ended, so did the Communist
threat, and the entire political edifice in Italy crumbled overnight.
Hundreds of public officials were arrested in the early '90s
as the result of a "clean hands" campaign by Italian
magistrates who uncovered massive corruption and Mafia influence
within the mainstream parties. Craxi fled to Tunisia to avoid
a prison sentence. Prosecutors in Milan subsequently traced $6
million that had been funneled from Berlusconi's Finnivest company
to foreign bank accounts controlled by Craxi, who died in exile
Staving off a series of legal challenges, Berlusconi surged
forward at a propitious moment to fill the void created by the
precipitous demise of the two leading mainstream right-wing forces
in Italy, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Suddenly
bereft of party protection, which had always been crucial to his
commercial success, Berlusconi needed to enter the political arena
directly. So he founded Forza Italia, which governed briefly in
1994 before giving way to six-and-a-half years of lackluster,
center left rule.
The political bankruptcy of the center-left coalition is partly
to blame for Berlusconi's comeback. Rather than passing tough
antitrust measures to break up Berlusconi's media assets, the
center left government focused its attention on imposing major
cuts in social welfare programs and stringent economic prescriptions
required by the European Union. Meanwhile, unemployment remained
at chronically high levels. With dissatisfaction palpable at the
grassroots, the "Olive Tree" alliance, as the center
left was called, sought to keep open the possibility of including
Berlusconi's party in a "national unity" government,
should the need arise.
Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Dario Fo bemoans the short-sighted
strategy of the Olive Tree coalition, which miscalculated when
it assumed that Berlusconi's tangled web of companies and his
checkered past would render him politically vulnerable. "In
a thoroughly slavish manner," Fo says, "the left kept
Berlusconi in the game, because they believed this was the best
way to improve their prospects. This is the only reason that things
have advanced as far as they have."
Those who underestimated Berlusconi will pay a steep price.
Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens,
a book on neofascism.