“Berlusconismo”, or “That Strange Thing That Foreign Journalists Do Not Want To Understand”. Di Stefano Casertano Scasertano08@gsb.columbia.edu* Let’s make it clear from the beginning: this article does not have the purpose of backing an Italian political party or the other, neither to discuss the “conflict of interest” issue of the current Italian Prime Minister. This article is a brief investigation about why the foreign press finds it so difficult to understand a phenomenon such as “Berlusconismo”. The German ZDF TV News commented the last Italian election outcomes with an embarrassing “Mamma mia” by the host Marietta Slomka, introducing a report where the basic logics is the classic “Italians voting for Berlusconi because he owns a media empire and TV viewers believe in it”. This thesis was completed by two “vox populi” interviews with enthusiastic fans screaming their love for the new Prime Minister. The Wall Street Journal commented that “His $12 billion fortune, and ownership of three national television networks and a slew of newspapers – and the larger than life story of a Milan boy who built an empire – will always set him apart”, or even that “For all his familiar Viagra cracks and promises to put "hotties" in his cabinet, Mr. Berlusconi didn't look to have his heart in this race. His platform was far less ambitious than in the past”. One is left wondering: are “hotties” enough of a reason to win an election? The “Forbes” turned surprising in its statement that “Media-savvy Berlusconi also seems adept at telling people what they want to hear, even if little or no action is likely to follow”, with an outright threat that “If Italians were hoping that the 71-year-old, taught-faced media billionaire would be able to save their faltering economy, they may be bitterly disappointed”. Since Italian started opening up its borders to international economy in the early nineties, foreign media became progressively interested in the events of the country. Reporters from all over Europe could not help sharing funny thoughts with their fellow citizens concerning observations about Roman politics. To their disappointment, we must state that Italians did not vote Berlusconi because of his media influence. If some did, they were not enough to justify a 9,3% difference in the electoral outcome of the lower house. What is really happening in Italy is that citizens opted for a “leadership” positioning, such as Berlusconi’s, rather than a “compromise” one, as expressed by center-left coalitions since the early 1990’s. Italy is a complicated country. Its republican history was born from the ashes of a two-decades long fascist regime, pushing constitutionalists that to a “compromise” approach, avoiding strong leadership positions. That is, for example, the reason why the current Berlusconi III is the 60th government since 1948: clashes had always to be resolved through new alliances, rather than cutting decisions. Italians are afraid that this approach is not able to solve the problems of international economies anymore, and wanted a change. In this sense, “Berlusconismo” may represent a change that center-left parties understood with some too much delay. Veltroni spoke about compromise, but practically cut all radical left parties off his alliance. He was widely criticized for this, yet it seems that he was the only one in his coalition to have understood the essence of the Berlusconi appeal, and to set a strategy to counter it.
The same “Forbes” article mentioned before gives a hint of what Berlusconi could represent: “The victory of Berlusconi was as much a vote for Berlusconi, as a vote against Prodi, said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at John Cabot. ‘Berlusconi won because he has a strong coalition and because people feel that on the other side, the government is going to take them nowhere’.” The “leadership” appeal of Veltroni paid the dues of having to rely on too many politicians of the recently failed government, carrying the positioning of professional discussants unable to deliver real opinions. Young people are more active every election. Participation to elections is among the highest in the world, with more than 80% of the people casting their vote. Governments use to last much longer now than before: since 1948, out of 59 governments a stunning 58% lasted less than one year; recently, Berlusconi II set the record at 1409 days; Prodi I is third at 875; Prodi II is seventh at 617. Politics in Italy are changing: it is not just about Media empires. Ian Fisher on the New York Times gives a blitz of spotlight to this element, conceding that “Experts on the left and the right said — and in some cases lamented — that the election had shown a shift toward a more American- or British-style system of two dominant middle-ground parties”. This statement is sunk into a longer lamentation of “media-influence”, “personal politics” and “a moment of national self-doubt” where “a man whose dramas — the clowning and corruption scandals, his rocky relations with his wife and political partners, his growing hairline and ever browner hair — play out very much in public”. To the benefit of foreign journalists, I humbly remember that Italians know this: there is an interest conflict; some Berlusconi performances, especially at the EU Parliament, where all but necessary; the focus on personal life is questionable. Yet, Italians voted for him. It seems too much of an easy solution to depict Italians as frustrated gonzos that make what the TV set says. *Profile Stefano Casertano is completing his MBA at Columbia University in New York, and is a Ph.D. researcher in International Politics and Energy Economics at Potsdam University in Germany. Prior to Columbia, Stefano was a Senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, mainly assisting governments and public administrations in Italy, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. In his work for the 2005 UK Presidency of the European Commission, Stefano peer reviewed the best “e- Government” projects worldwide, to create an institutional reference document presented at various European Union meetings.