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Has Silvio Berlusconi Ruined Italy Forever?

History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, Karl Marx once wrote. What then to make of the possibility that Italy’s disgraced and discredited former leader Silvio Berlusconi has announced he will undertake his sixth election campaign in hopes of becoming prime minister for a fourth time?

In Berlusconi’s case, tragedy and farce were both present at his astonishing entrance onto the political scene in 1994, and both have grown since then in equal measure. The farcical elements reached legendary heights by the accumulation of Berlusconi’s off-color remarks and diplomatic disasters, facelifts and hair transplants, sexual escapades and seamy legal problems. At the same time, the full tragedy of Berlusconi’s political legacy has also become increasingly apparent: A major European country has been effectively paralyzed for nearly twenty years by its richest citizen. Berlusconi has proven remarkably incapable of governing Italy, but extremely capable of preventing Italy from being governed by anybody else.

Foreigners may be surprised by Berlusconi’s comeback—especially considering his ignonimous exit from office last December, in which international credit markets and his European colleagues essentially declared they had no confidence in his leadership, leaving Italy on the brink of bankrupcy. But what they fail to understand is that the reason Berlusconi is now “back” is that he never actually left. 

While he stepped down as prime minister last December and was replaced by the economist Mario Monti, Berlusconi’s “People of Liberty” party is still the largest in parliament; Monti’s technocratic government has only stayed in power as long as it has thanks to the tacit support of Berlusconi’s center right majority. Berlusconi has been playing a double game the entire time, supporting the Monti government in parliament, while his own media empire attacked Monti at every step. It was all just an effort to buy some time, in hopes that the memory of Berlusconi’s own failures would fade as the public grew unhappy with Monti's austerity programs.

To some extent, things have gone according to plan: Italians are not pleased with the country's struggling economy. Still, few Italians want Berlusconi to return as prime minister. Many of the moderate voters who had once genuinely saw him as a possible agent of change—the entrepreneur who would shake up politics, the man who was “too rich to bribe”—have since seen too much evidence of Berlusconi's boundless egotism. In announcing his run last week, he didn't even bother to frame his ambitions in terms of the national interest. Berlusconi explained that his market research showed that without him, his party, the People of Liberty, would only get about eight percent of the vote, but with him, would obtain a respectable 28 percent. (Independent polls actually show his party obtaining about 15 percent – less than half of what it had received in 2008 but possibly enough because of Italy’s proportional electoral system to give Berlusconi important bargaining power in forming a new government.) “If we were to fall to eight percent,” he asked, “what would have been the point of eighteen years of political life?”

In this intuition, Berlusconi is absolutely correct: In his eighteen years of political life, he has built nothing solid, nothing lasting. He has created a purely personal party, built with his money, media power and personal charisma. The narcissistic cult of personality he has created—election campaigns in which he was often the only face you could see on his party posters; an election whose anthem was “Thank God, there’s Silvio!”—has meant that there has never been space for any other secondary figures to develop a national following, or challenge Berlusconi’s leadership, or give his party a platform beyond its leader's personality.

Indicative of this highly personalized leadership was the way in which Berlusconi arrived at and announced his decision to run. The Democratic Party, the main center-left party, had just held popular primaries to choose its candidates for parliament. But in Berlusconi's party, there would be no primaries, no meetings of the leadership, just the word of the supreme leader handed down to the public through a party secretary. “Berlusconi has expressed his determination to return to the pitch as protagonist,” Angelino Alfano said in a press conference, “He is the standard bearer, the last to hold the winner’s cup high. Primaries were to be held to determine a successor, but with him on the field, it makes no sense to hold them.”

There was a time when Berlusconi's legendary charisma did, in fact, captivate the wider electorate, not just his political cronies. Many Italians once seemed to view him in semi-divine terms. Pregnant women were known to ask them to touch their stomachs, as if he had the healing touch of a medieval king; his political rallies had the intoxicating raucous quality of rock concerts. But that magic is now long gone. Even since making the announcement that he may run, he has made few public appearances. Recent polls conducted show that 72 percent of Italians would never vote for Berlusconi for any reason and that only a hard core of about 17 percent remain enthusiastically in his favor. “Italians no longer believe in miracles,” Gianfranco Fini, a former Berlusconi ally said in a recent television interview. 

In theory, this should open the way for a solid victory of the center-left, which might then offer a stable government, a chance to pass reforms and an opportunity for the center-right to plan for its own post-Berlusconi future. Unfortunately, one of Berlusconi's most lasting legacies was the passage of an electoral law that seems destined to ensure chaos in all future Italian elections. In 2006, when his second government was ending and he was looking at almost certain defeat, Berlusconi decided to abandon the winner-takes-all system that has been designed to create two broad center-right and center-left coalitions, opting instead for a return to the proportional system that privileged a panoply of fringe parties—the better to divide his opponents as much as possible. The strategy succeeded: the center-left won but was splintered between nine different parties with a razor thin majority and the government of Romano Prodi fell apart in less than two years, paving the way for Berlusconi’s third government. 

This year there has again been support across ideological lines to create a better electoral system. But Berlusconi has again refused to support it. That has increased the likelihood of an election with no clear winner—except for Berlusconi himself, who may be needed to cobble together any functioning coalition. “He doesn’t necessarily need to govern, he wants to matter and to condition what the government does,” explains Giovanna Melandri, a member of parliament with the Democratic Party. “We may end up,” Parisi warns, “with a situation very much like Greece,” which is held together by a shaky coalition of left and right and the country hanging on to its place in the European Union by a thread. In this configuration, Berlusconi would remain in a position to work for the the things he has always cared most about: The protection of his media empire and the legal fight to keep himself out of prison. 

Perhaps the most deplorable aspect of Berlusconi's protracted political saga is that it has always diverted attention from the real situation of the country he was ostensibly serving. When he entered politics in 1994, the problems facing Italy were evident for anyone to see: A national debt greater than the GDP, an over-generous pension system, excessively inflexible labor system, a terrible university system, low levels of research and development funding, declining productivity and a bloated and parasitic political class that interfered in the economy for its own enrichment and power. Italy could well have used an Italian Thatcher, which is how Berlusconi advertised himself at the outset of his political career. 

But Berlusconi was nothing more than a self-interested robber baron intent on using government for personal aims, turning a major democracy into a kind of Sultanate (harem included) and weakening Italy’s legal system and corrupting its culture so that his own weird brand of one-man rule would come to appear almost normal. He failed because his megalomania led him to self-destruct and because of his rank incompetence in tending to the country’s business. And after nearly twenty years, the country’s problems remain unattended and far more serious. But they are that much harder to see for all the distractions and distortions that Berlusconi's presence has introduced to the political stage. Whether Berlusconi's story is a tragedy or a farce is almost irrelevant; the point is that it has been, and will now continue to be, a disaster for everyone involved.