The jester gets the last laugh

The non-unity and poor performance of Romano Prodi’s left-of-center government no doubt contributed to its premature downfall. But this alone cannot explain the conservatives’ victory in Italy’s elections. The picture is incomplete without the Silvio Berlusconi phenomenon. Ironic comments about his antics bypass the fact that the media mogul has starred in Italian politics for some 15 years – most of the time as premier. For historical reasons, national unity in Italy has been less than strong. This has traditionally been offset by a tendency for strong leadership. After the collapse of the bankrupt system of power built around Christian Democracy, Berlusconi came to fill the vacuum. Faced with a fragmented left, Berlusconi styled himself as a strong leader. A second aspect concerns his simple, albeit attractive, message: You’d rather be governed by a successful businessman than by a motley crew of lethargic talking heads that never fail to care for their privileges. But there is also another reason for his success. In a graft-ridden society, the so-called Cavalier carries with him the promise that he will turn a blind eye to underhanded deals. His attacks on the evil, unjust state, as it were, do not carry the promise of a fair and efficient state. They are rather an indirect way to legitimize unlawful behavior. Berlusconi has, after all, been implicated in scandals and some of his close aides have been convicted. Berlusconi is a peculiar breed of right-wing populist. His promise corresponds to age-old middle-class fantasies. His plain talk makes him popular with voters while his antics serve the same end. In fact, many Italians aspire to become like their leader. His TV networks have not left society unaffected over the past 25 years. They may not directly advertise their owner, but they consistently cultivate the ideas that have enabled him to stay in the limelight all these years.