“Thank goodness Silvio c'è! Thank goodness there’s Silvio!” So goes Silvio Berlusconi’s campaign song from 2008. But no man since Benito Mussolini has loomed over Italian politics so ominously. Now – and many might say thank goodness – the media mogul’s political career appears to be over, on paper at least.
As the world knows only too well, to call Berlusconi the Teflon leader would be to denigrate the non-stick capabilities of that trusty saucepan. The so-called Cavaliere’s scandals, gaffes, associations, bluffs, insults, romps and retaliations have spanned a vast range of inappropriate behaviour – from the comic and almost endearing to the shady and downright sinister.
The most pertinent question that commentators both inside and outside of Italy always ask but never manage to answer is; how did Italians put up with, and indeed vote for, him and his parties for so long? Many millions today would still vote for him. As is often the case in Italian public life nothing is as it seems. A simple statement, gesture or fact is the representation of a deeper, more complex story.
“Berlusconi has to be looked at in the context of Berlusconismo,” is often the way tedious late-night political chat shows frame it. Berlusconi’s career has to be viewed as a series of (some might say unlucky) circumstances. In the vacuum that was the collapse of the traditional right and left, it was hardly surprising that the creator and owner of Italy’s giant media networks gained a lot of political traction. But analysis of the emergence of Berlusconismo is in itself a divisive issue. Some say it was the wider political landscape of 20 years ago that led to Berlusconi’s rise. The more sceptical pundit will argue that he caused that landscape. In other words: Berlusconi – over decades of television control – made Italy in his image.
Either way the battles, either semantic or political, are set to go on. Berlusconi will continue to pull many strings from his position now forcibly outside of the Senate. Despite this, a strange new dawn seems to be rising over the rooftops of Rome. Berlusconi became a syndrome, at times a crippling influence over Italy’s position on the world stage. The Cavaliere’s figure cast a shadow over the best and most progressive elements of Italian public life. Berlusconismo was a destructive parasite and even though he is now banned from entering politics, the mood in Italy is hardly celebratory.
Old allegiances and a tangled web of political patronage make that impossible. Italy feels withered and embarrassed. But it should take heart and take stock of what has been a momentous and encouragingly stable 2013. Everyone in Italy will tell you that change in their country is very slow – gradualismo. But today things seem to have finally changed and, gradually, Berlusconi non c’e’.
David Plaisant is a researcher for Monocle 24