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Berlusconi from below

Berlusconi may have secured the popular vote in Italy but he remains a controversial figure in Italian political life. For the left he is seen as a figure who disrespects the law and whose political life is characterized by conflicts of interest. The latest attempts to shield him from judicial investigation have disturbed moderate voices such as that if the newspaper La Stampa. This suggests not only Berlusconi reverting to type but also the Italian political system itself. Further his desire to take communion as a divorced person has according to the Times online ‘raised eyebrows’ amongst church conservatives. It seems that he cannot avoid controversy. What do ordinary Italians think of Berlusconi? I had recently a chance to reflect on this in various conversations, largely informal. The views presented here have not been systematically collected.

The first conversation I had recently about Berlusconi was both informal and largely accidental. I was speaking to a young man that I know about the progress of the late spring and early summer (a topic that has some economic significance for tourism and production in a rural area) when he suddenly switched the topic to that of Berlusconi. He announced that he was ashamed that Italy should be represented in Europe and elsewhere by such a character, whom he dubbed ‘ladro’ (Italian for ‘thief’ and a reference to corruption charges currently facing Berlusconi). He accepted that he had been elected with considerable political support but wondered who had voted for him. He expressed his surprise that when he talks to people about Berlusconi, nobody claims to have voted for him or his party but accepts that many must have done so, even amongst his friends, otherwise he could not have been elected. The implication of hypocritical behavior amongst those to whom he had spoken was strong. Could it be that many who voted for him have do so out of exasperation about the economy and the general state of the country and feel slightly uneasy about the consequences of their decisions? The exclusion of the communists from representation must be a shock for many people and the left has felt the political need to regroup and renew itself.

One small-scale but active entrepreneur whose business depends on the competitiveness of the Italian tourist industry who was also very willing to identify himself as a person of the left had a more analytical and less emotional approach. People were simply fed-up with the inability of the government that replaced Berlusconi’s to get anything done. The economic crisis was affecting many people and Berlusconi would certainly help the small-business person, such as himself, essential to the growth of the Italian economy. In contextualizing this view, it is important to know that Berlusconi campaigned on the basis of being the ‘entrepreneur of Italy’ and the leader of the ‘culture of accomplishment’. Berlusconi had simply been seen as someone who might just manage to get the economy moving and change implemented. The businessman identified as a microcosm of Italy’s problems the bankrupt nature of Alitalia. The deficits were the result of the inefficiencies created by nepotism and administrative confusion. It was obvious to him that a market solution was essential, in this respect, but that many were still tied to the idea of a ‘national carrier’. What people wanted was change and a movement forward.

One family, members of the professional and property owning-classes, had never failed in its support for Berlusconi and was delighted by his victory in the elections. It was simply a matter of conviction for it that Berlusconi would settle Italy’s economic and political problems and that there was simply nobody else who could take on this task and achieve success. For such people, the judicial investigation of Berlusconi is the product of ‘left-leaning’ magistrates. This is of course a group to which Berlusconi’s supporters in the parliament can appeal in the attempt to remove ‘fictional cases’ from the legal system and accelerate the prosecution of serious criminal trials. However even professional people who may not share this particular view hold that given the state of the economy and the administrative crises in Italy as exemplified by the problems of Naples, expressed the view that Berlusconi seemed to be the only sensible choice in the context. For such people it would seem contradictory to elect him to high office and continue a prosecution through the courts.

Can Berlusconi do the job and create the change that seems to be required? It would seem that Berlusconi ran an excellent campaign. There is no doubt that he is both outspoken and willing to meet challenges head on. He has not given up on supporting his friend Tony Blair with respect to Blair’s European ambitions or in increasing Italy’s support for President Bush’s stand on Iran. However his record on the economy as a whole in the past is not good. His alliance with the business community and its political representatives is strong even if sometimes tested. Small-business is better represented in the politics of business as it is in the Italian economy as a whole and this strengthens Berlusconi’s support. These economy issues would seem to be represented in the views presented here. To implement the changes wanted by the people who elected him, including tax reform, Berlusconi himself needs to be both challenging and cooperative. Watch this space!