Berlusconi, balls, and bouncing bimbos……

People often ask me (especially lately), how Italians could ever have voted for  such a ludicrous character as their current Prime Minister.   How do the makers of some of the finest food, fashion and racing cars in the world tick the ballot box next to the name of an ageing, sex crazed, buffoon?  And if they did unwittingly why don’t they do something to get rid of him now?

My favourite Berlusconi story is this.  At a formal State dinner to welcome the visiting queen of a neighbouring European country, the elderly queen, just after they had sat at the table, started off polite State dinner conversation by asking Berlusconi and his Cabinet how Italy was faring during the GFC.  What were some of the changes he had noticed and had to deal with as Prime Minister?  To which Berlusconi replied that the main thing he had noticed was that the price of his hookers had gone up.

So I too would like to know the answers to the questions that I get asked.  Just cos I lived in Italy doesn’t mean I understand the phenomena or that I can explain it.  But I do have some observations, from having been inside the country during the entire time that Berlusconi has been PM,  and then I’m gonna defer to an expert.

Berlusconi hasn’t burst onto a scene of perfect, unfailing, serene and upright democracy.  He has burst out of failing, corrupt, chaotic and barely there democracy.  Italy had one party (the Christian Democrats) that ruled for more than four decades almost continuously after the Second World War, one of the last Prime Ministers of which was charged with murder and Mafia membership at the end of his term.  The only time the reign of the Christian Democrats was interrupted by an opposing political party, that Prime Minister was later charged with some of the largest fraud and money laundering activities the country had ever seen.  He fled the country to live out his life in North Africa.

So they have never had much to choose from.  Questioning friends of mine at the time, one of the main reasons for voting Berlusconi in, at first, was the fact that he was one of the world’s richest men and therefore would be immune from the bribes that others had fallen foul to.  They didn’t foresee that the tables could be turned and that bribes could be offered, to change laws, get immunity from prosecution, and break the rules of the constitution, because he was one of the richest men in the world.

Italy’s political system has always been complicated and difficult to understand by most students of politics.  They don’t have a left and right, they have at least five parties at any one time all circulating around the left and the right (the centre left, the left, the centre right, the right, the centre etc.).   Usually a number of small parties have to reign together which means that most of the time is spent fighting about ideology and not getting anything done, and that often the government is dissolved (three times in the 1990’s).  I remember a flat mate of mine from the UK experiencing this for the first time and being afraid to go out into the streets.  How can you be safe when there is no government she asked?  What do we do?  Will there be anarchy?  The answer is you can, nothing, and no.  I had lived through this before and had come to the conclusion that Italy more or less exists separately to its political governance.  It continues on in spite of it.

Berlusconi is clever though.  When Italy changed its voting system in the 1990’s from Proportional Representation to First-Past-the-Post he was the one of the first to realise that this meant less of the incessant cronyism that had been the hallmarks of success previously, and more that getting out to the people and winning the popularity vote, would be the way to victory.  This is where his owning most of the Italian media came in handy, and still does.  From just before the ban on publicity for political campaigning begins, you can be sure that Berlusconi will be on every chat show and news report possible.  His biggest antics are usually during this period so that every day the headlines of all the newspapers have the words Berlusconi in them.

And what of his sexual indiscretions?  His buffoonery in that area?  Well…….without going into a huge debate on sexism, purism, church, state, family etc……. again there is context.  Italian public life has always had a lot more sexiness in it than what we would be used to in other countries.  The usual coupling of Compares on a family hour TV show would be an old, fat, ugly guy and a gorgeous, nubile, scantily dressed woman.  One of Italy’s most popular current events and entertainment show has, in between its news segments, two young, beautiful women who dance sexily, clad in mini skirts and cleavage enhancing wear.  The camera is often underneath them as they are dancing on the desks of the two guys who compare the show.   There is a fierce national competition held every year for the two places that these dancers hold.  When the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke many Italians shrugged their shoulders.  An “of age” woman giving a elected leader a BJ in his office…… so what?

When I went for my first professional job interview in Italy as an Associate Professor at a University, I was offered two jobs.  One where I would be available to sleep with my 65 year old Professor/boss (I was not yet 30) and get to travel all over Europe plus several other exciting perks, and one where I would not be available and be stuck at the University doing work.  At least 50% of the other women I worked with that year had taken the first option (I took the second one).  Some of them to get their degrees.  Sex, politics and sexual politics are all alive and well in Italy and are just another way of “getting along”.  Where Berlusconi has gone wrong is in making it too public, causing his wife to loose face and divorce him.  This is a cardinal sin.  He is now no longer protected by the “family man” image.  A vital part of the social fabric in Italy.

Lastly I will refer you to an expert.  Alexander Stille, an avid Italian watcher, has written The Sack of Rome.  How a beautiful European country with a fabled history and a storied culture was taken over by a man named Silvio Berlusconi. He warns us that any culture that reveres privately owned television/media as its main information source, candidate’s appearances over substance, sound bites over policies, and votes based on popularity and personality is in danger of a Berlusconi.  I couldn’t help thinking of that when I saw the National Opposition leader speaking on national television in front of a sign that said “Julia is bob’s bitch.”  It had all the hallmarks of a Berlusconiesque campaign.

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