Let there be no doubt: should Silvio Berlusconi’s government fall to a no-confidence vote tomorrow, the cause will not be the various allegations of his personal and professional conduct that have plagued him from the start of his political career. What will bring Berlusconi down will instead have been party machine politics – or rather the lack thereof.
Most foreign correspondents and observers still marvel at Berlusconi’s political career, not understanding how he could have not only emerged but also prospered. The Berlus-Kaiser – as he has been nicknamed – has survived two electoral defeats (in 1996 and 2006) only to bounce back and win the Italians’ trust once more. It’s always difficult for anyone to explain to outsiders the contexts of any country’s politics but it is impossible to understand certain phenomena without some appreciation of them. Could a Brit explain David Cameron to a foreigner without mentioning Michael Howard, IDS, William Hague and Tony Blair? And could anyone explain Tony Blair without mentioning Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot? I will however try to explain it in a nut-shell.
By the end of the 80s, the Italian electorate was increasingly angry with inefficient public services bolstered by high marginal tax rates, a significant portion of which were intercepted by all political parties in the forms of kick-backs. The extent of this corruption began to be uncovered by Milanese prosecutors in the early 90s with the investigations that were called Tangentopoli (Kick-Back City). These investigations only confirmed and exacerbated the disgust Italians developed for traditional politics. Remember public outrage and the MPs' expenses revelations in the UK? Now imagine that multiplied by a factor of 20 and you can begin to understand the public’s mood.
However the Tangentopoli investigations soon became politically directed. The Milanese prosecutors began targeting exclusively the conservative and centrist parties (including the Italian Socialists) whilst giving a free pass to the parties of the left, including the ex-communists. It’s worth remembering that of that team of prosecutors, one of them, Antonio Di Pietro, went on to serve in the left-wing Prodi governments as a minister before creating his own leftist party, l’Italia dei Valori (Values Italy), whilst another prosecutor, Gerardo D’Ambrosio, is now a senator of the Italian Democratic Party.
Most of the other prosecutors regularly attend left-wing political conferences, seminars and meetings. Although it was the equivalents of the general secretaries of the Socialist and Christian Democratic Parties who were the people managing the money, prosecutors also indicted the party leaders on the basis of a legal theory wherein the party leaders “couldn’t not know”. This theory however was not extended to the party leaders of the left even when the ex-communists’ own general secretaries were caught.
With the traditional parties of the centre-right being decimated by the prosecutors, the Italian electorate approved two referendums in 1993, one introducing a first-past-the-post system in rejection of the PR system which was seen a corrupt and failed; and another referendum abolishing the public financing of political parties, as the Italians didn’t want politicians’ hands in the tax-payers’ pockets. Anyone wants to make some notes in reference to the current British political debate, please feel free…
The centre-right successor parties seemed to be three, a surviving centrist group formed by former Christian democrats and liberals lead by Mario Segni; Umberto Bossi’s Northern League and Gianfranco Fini’s Italian Social Movement – the successor to the Italian Fascist Party of a certain Benito Mussolini. Fini had just started the political journey that would lead him to ditch all ties with Fascism and create the National Alliance (Alleanza Nazionale). Bossi was looking to sweep the North, having long campaigned against the Roman parties’ corruption. Fini’s party could look to a similar result in the south. However these three groups not talking to each other, and with a first past the post electoral system the left – led by the ex-communists – could look forward to winning a solid majority in parliament even with a relatively small percentage of the popular vote.
It was at this moment that Berlusconi decided to get involved in politics and stand for office. He created his Forza Italia movement, managed to convince Bossi, Fini and Pierferdinando Casini’s centrists to coalesce (Segni refused to consider such an alliance) – and to everyone’s surprise won the general elections of 1994. Much has been said and discussed about why Berlusconi decided to get involved in politics. Some say he did so because at that time his businesses were in a bad state and having lost his political patrons he risked going bankrupt. Others claim he did so out of patriotism. Only Berlusconi will ever truly know.
Berlusconi’s political history is a matter of public record and need not be recalled here. However the origins of his political story contained within them the seeds of his possible demise this week.
From the start, Berlusconi refused to create a traditional political party, with proper associations at a local, regional and ultimately national level. He shared – or chose to capitalise on – Italians’ rejection of traditional party politics. Berlusconi saw his movement as a blanket umbrella label under which local associations would be created with the sole purpose of campaigning at election time and then disappear. However it soon became apparent that by refusing any kind of party structure – and in the absence of the American equivalent of grass-root political action groups and national think-tanks – his movement lacked the tools with which to find the people capable of credibly standing for the numerous political offices.
Berlusconi’s first group of political advisors included the majority of his businesses’ directors and advisors and after that it would take time for experienced politicians to make their way to the top. Indeed, without a system to promote the more capable people, the only pathway for any ambitious politician to reach the top and possibly a ministerial position was by attracting Berlusconi’s attention and favour. Rather than a political party, Berlusconi’s movement resembled an 18th century monarch’s court, wherein the king’s favourites were granted positions and power and everyone else had to stand by and watch.
This would mean – amongst other things – that not always the best people would advance within the movement. Berlusconi would often co-opt and recruit people from outside his movement to serve as ministers (such as the current Foreign Secretary Franco Frattini and even his current finance minister Giulio Tremonti) to bolster his government’s credibility and expertise but this would then create rivalries and jealousies with the people who had worked within the movement.
This remained the shape of Berlusconi’s movement over the next few years, an internally amorphous organisation where no one could get ahead without the patronage of internal party potentates whose only claim to legitimacy was – in turn – likewise the patronage of an admittedly fickle leader. There were virtually no party conferences and none of the internal debate that would characterise the life of any recognisable political party in most European countries. Berlusconi however also refused to build up the external organisations that could give his party the political and administrative tools to govern – the think-tanks and PACs that the US knows so well.
In 2008 the Italian Left, having catastrophically failed as a governing force, decided to merge its largest parties into one, the Italian Democratic Party, an odd coalition of ex-communists, socialists, left-wing Catholics and liberals whose only unifying ideology is opposition to Berlusconi and vaguely left-of-centre buzz-words. Berlusconi decided that the parties of the centre-right should also merge into one movement – effectively his own – renamed Freedom’s People.
Professional politicians such as Fini and Casini were unenthusiastic about losing their positions within their own parties – positions legitimised by internally democratic processes – and to dissolve within Berlusconi’s court. Bossi – whose control of the Northern League strongly resembles Berlusconi’s – never even considered the merger. Casini eventually refused as well and his UDC stood alone at the 2008 General Elections. Fini was effectively forced by a number of his own MPs and activists to go along but was less than enthusiastic. He was given the highly prestigious position of President of the Chamber of Deputies – effectively the Speaker – as an attempt to quell him.
Ultimately however, proud politicians who had earned their positions “on the ground” did not wish to conform to the “court’s” rules. Fini – like Casini before him – wanted a clear set of political structures that would allow for the survival of a centre-right movement after Berlusconi’s inevitable demise – be it natural or judicial – and also a system that would allow him, and anyone else for that matter, to have a shot at probably the most desired position in Italian politics, i.e. the succession to Berlusconi’s leadership. Without any indication of how this could work – and with Berlusconi reluctant to indicate a successor – Fini and a group of his followers left Freedom’s People and created their own party – Italy’s Future and Liberty.
And tomorrow this party will vote on the no-confidence motion and possibly take Berlusconi down. For Fini and Casini have decided to force the succession issue once and for all, by decapitating the Berlus-Kaiser but declaring themselves open and willing to be part of a new centre-right coalition led by someone else. The Conservative Party – if deciding its leader is an obstacle – has no problem in removing him or her (regicide is so deliciously Tory after all) but Freedom’s People lacks the mechanisms to legally replace their chief. And courtiers rarely wish to turn on their patron, having worked so hard to establish their position.
The result – either way – will be on a knife edge and is at this stage unpredictable. Berlusconi might attract a few undecided MPs to back him or abstain. Or he might face his own internal back-bench revolt. We will have to wait and see although I personally predict he will find a way to survive (but am not prepared to put money on it…)
Whilst so much of Berlusconi’s parable is intrinsically Italian, there are some points which might be considered common to all political systems. For all the faults of the traditional political party machines, they do – at their best – offer clearly defined structures and pathways to allow ambitious and capable people to climb the “greasy pole” and stand for the highest offices in the land. They also allow for internal democratic accountability and give anyone who speaks for them a clear mandate. The only other functioning alternative system would be the American system, of weak party structures but strong grass-roots political organisations and primary systems to allow for a real competition to determine the winners. Without the legitimacy awarded by either of these systems, party political representatives – even once they win elections – will always have to face questions – and their own internal doubts – as to how they got there in the first place.
Berlusconi never wanted to transcend his fundamentally anti-political origins and instincts. This incapability will ultimately sign both his fate and the fate of centre-right politics in Italy.