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Teflon Man does it again! PDF Print E-mail
Mar 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM

Berlusconi, as Pandora inhabitant
So here we are, several weeks after what appeared to be the high point (or, rather, the low point) of the Berlusconi sex scandal, his indictment by a Milan court on charges that in most other countries would have led a prime minister to resign immediately, and absolutely nothing has happened and at this point probably will not. The charges in the case that has become known as Rubygate" after the name of a then under-age Moroccan party girl, involve on the one hand, what is known as an "abuse of power", because of the prime minister's interference with police to get the 17-year old girl released after an arrest for stealing rather than sent to a supervised community for minors, and, on the other, the far more serious one of being involved in the prostitution of a minor. For the record, Berlusconi denies he had sex with the girl.

Even though Berlusconi is set to go to trial this April on those charges, and even though he will soon be appearing at three other corruption trials in which he is the accused, there is no longer any talk here about early elections and once again it is being taken (almost) for granted that he will be able to stay in power until the natural end of the present legislature in 2013. How is this possible, one is tempted to ask. The answer is both political and cultural. It can be found both in the nature of the current Italian electoral system and in the widespread attitudes towards power (and the powerful) that continue to prevail in a country in which ethics is the concern of only a very few.

The fact is that Berlusconi, once again, appears to have ridden out the challenge to his power and in this he has been helped by two groups of people. On the one hand, there are the MPs of his own party and those of his close allies, such as the Northern League, who have rallied behind him 100%, giving voice on the one hand to the fairly extensive viewpoint that Berlusconi is the victim of a group of unduly aggressive, political-motivated Milanese magistrates who are determined to bring him down, and on the other to a fairly generalized Italian conviction that a person's personal life should have no political repercussions.

Another group of people, who describe themselves as pure Liberals (which in the European context refers to those who want the state to encroach as little as possible on people's daily lives), may not like Berlusconi or appreciate some of his behaviour, but are outraged by the magistrates' extensive phone-tapping, accusing the latter of operating as if they were officials of a totalitarian state like the former East Germany. In effect, almost everyone who has attended one of Berlusconi parties has had his or her phones tapped and thus (since there is still no law that makes it a crime to leak such wire-tapping content, or to publish it) we, the public, have been treated to an enormous number of details (most of which are hard to corroborate since people often lie or exaggerate when they speak with others) about what went on at these parties. (I myself am not sure what I think about all this wiretapping, but since sex with minors and facilitating the prostitution of a minor is a serious crime, perhaps it is legitimate).

From the political point of view, the reluctanceof the country's politicians to move on is fairly easy to understand. In the first place, people in power rarely want to leave it and you can bet that most of the Italian cabinet and the overwhelming majority of Italy's 945 MPs is instinctively reluctant to consider Berlusconi's departure, or the prospect of new elections which - one never knows - could always go the other way. For example, if the opposition were to erect a truly united, across-the-political spectrum alliance, it might not survive for very long once in power, but it could manage to defeat Berlusconi, at least temporarily.

Now add to this, the fact that since the most recent reform (no, that's too dignified a word, let's say "the most recent modification") of the Italian electoral law), anyone who is a member of Parliament, deputy or senator, is there only because he or she has been placed on the a party's electoral lists by its top leaders and not because he or she has anything of a local power base, or the opportunity to develop one.

Prior to this change in December 2005 (a change proposed by a member of the Northern League but hotly endorsed by Berlusconi,), three quarters of the seats in parliament were chosen on the basis of single-member "first-past-the-post" districts that ensured some kind of "organic" relationship between the country's political center and its provinces. That system had been introduced in 1993 after a popular referendum on the subject, and to my mind worked quite well. Now voters have no way at all to express any kind of a preference among candidates, something which even existed in the old, pre-1993 proportional system (1945 to 1993) which, once a voter was filling out his ballot, allowed him or her to express up to four "preferenze" in order to chose among the candidates running for office in that district.

In addition, the present proportional system is also a "corrected" one that gives a "prize" - in the number of seats - to the coalition obtaining a plurality: at national level for the Chamber, at the regional level for the Senate.

So the reasons why most coalition MPs and Cabinet members would be reluctant to face elections are pretty clear. But the fact that they also did not appear very much inclined to consider even the possibility of Berlusconi stepping aside as prime minister and being replaced by one of his cabinet ministers, such as the much-respected Economy minister, Giulio Tremonti, shows there is more to it than that. Partly, it is Berlusconi's enormous charisma and his perception as being nearly all powerful that works to keep a grip on possible recalcitrants. Let's remember, furthermore, that this is a country that still remains all too atavistically tied to a history populated by consuls, emperors, princes, dukes, strongmen, dictators and other satraps, personalities who were above the law or - and this, alas, is still the case - treated as if they were above it. Thus, Berlusconi is "allowed" to do things that for ordinary mortals might be totally off bounds. (And, thus, an enormous slice of the Italian population ever got exercised about the conflict of interest question, that is, that Berlusconi, along with being Prime Minister and thus having considerable influence over state television and radio, also owns the country's largest private TV consortium and several key newspapers or magazines).

But the MPs (and Cabinet members) also share the view of much of the Italian population that one's personal life should have no bearing on one's political standing, no matter what. To some of these people, Berlusconi did nothing more than occasionally "turn his home into a discotheque", as one of his MPs recently put it. The fact that minors may have been involved doesn't seem to trouble them, nor does it appear worrisome to them that much of the world sees their country's prime minister as, at best, a buffoon, and, at worst, as a degenerate. His life-style - parties with bunga-bunga dancing (whatever that is, exactly, as no one seems to know), stripteases, some sexual shenanigans and lots of financial rewards to the young beauties on the guest list (many of whose parents and even boy-friends appear to have welcomed this opportunity) - does not appear to trouble them.


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