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General elections will be held in Italy on April 9, opposing flamboyant prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and rather lacklustre opposition leader Romano Prodi. Rome-based author Friedrich Christian Delius takes a critical look at Berlusconi's time in office, asking what could happen if Forza Italia, "the world's last Stalinist party", is ousted from power.


Between Guatemala and Mongolia

Italy's legal system is among the world's least effective, while its press ranks on a par with Third World countries as only "partly free". But Italophilia blinds Europeans to these facts. By Friedrich Christian Delius

Does anybody remember Rocco Buttiglione? The Italian candidate for the European Commission who trumpeted his distaste for homosexuals a little too loudly? At the time – before the French and Dutch rejected the constitution – Europe worked as it should. A chorus of protest forced Silvio Berlusconi to withdraw his candidate, a member of his own centre-right government. The prime minister accompanied the move with loud complaints about anti-Italian prejudice – which simply doesn't exist.

To understand Berlusconi we need but the simplest of decoders. Almost always, the truth is the exact opposite of what he says. The Buttiglione affair is no exception. The problem between Europe and Italy is in fact that the Europeans are blinded by their love for Italy. No other European country has such a good image as Italy, and rightly so. Tourists expect sun, sea, good food, lots of art, marvellous landscapes, the customary courteousness and a little dolce vita. But no politics if you please. The done thing is to ignore Italian politics completely, or to treat it as part of the folklore. Years ago Umberto Eco groaned: "What a disgrace, we have no enemies!" Worse than that, everybody loves bella Italia. How else could Italy have kept out of the European headlines since the the little scandal around Buttiglione? Before Berlusconi had even finished ranting at Italy's enemies, he presented his new candidate, his foreign minister Franco Frattini, who became Commission vice-president and Commissioner for justice, freedom and security.

Italy and justice? Just a minute. What about those ominous stories about Frattini's boss and the law? The European Parliament returned to business as usual. Europeans love Italy. Nobody wanted to be accused of prejudice again. Nobody thought it was worth looking in the archives. Frattini is considered the man behind the "Lex Berlusconi" which exonerates the prime minister of all conflicts of interest, and the architect of the biggest political purge of civil servants since fascism. But not a squeak of concern from Brussels or the international press.

That was eighteen months ago, and in the meantime we've heard little from this slick operator. His website lists the talks he's given all around the world, mostly on the topic of terrorism. But since taking office and swearing the oath of independence, he should have had a good deal more to do. One EU member state has enough work for round-the-clock attention from a Commissioner for Justice and Freedom. A country industriously de-constructing one democratic principle after another. Italy. So openly that even conservatives like Ernesto Galli della Loggia wail that their country "plainly no longer belongs to the West".

Admittedly, Italy does not have it easy. For a whole string of historical reasons, only a "weak democracy" (Alexander Stille) was able to take root there. Fascism is not regarded as a crime, more an accident. Family, clerical and Mafia structures are more deeply rooted than democratic ones. In Germany the Cold War was a matter of mindset, but Italy was one of its battlefields. No other country in Europe has been rocked by so many corruption and fraud scandals, revolts, Mafia and secret service crimes.

So we've got used to giving the Italians generous benefit of the doubt when it comes to matters democratic. We delight, absolutely rightly, in the charm of a relaxed attitude to rules – and put the tourist shades on, with exaggerated indulgence and subtle arrogance. Outside Italy it is, admittedly, seen as bizarre that the richest man in the country (11 billion dollars according to Forbes) is at the same time head of government, controls 90 percent of the private and public media, has been entangled in 14 court cases, and uses parliament to pass laws that are tailored specifically for him alone.

But no Italophilia without clichés. Europeans like to see the Italian as a bit of a rascal, but they fail to understand how insulting that is to the Italian majority. Starting with the conservative president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who is conducting a courageous but ultimately futile rearguard action against the deconstruction of democracy, through the great majority of judges and prosecutors, the intellectuals and the employers' organization right down to the hard-working ordinary people who see themselves cheated as never before. Ironically the harshest criticism of the "cavaliere" comes not from the Left, but from the grand old men of the conservative bourgeoisie.

Rather than backing Ciampi and taking the calls for help seriously, Brussels has tolerated Berlusconi as folklore for five years. We got used to regarding him as a Harlequin from the Commedia dell'Arte. Even Roberto Benigni calls him a puppet. Not so, he is a boss, a puppeteer in the guise of a puppet. It was a government led by a television magnate, not a puppet, that passed new television legislation giving one of the prime minister's stations sole access to terrestrial digital television against the objections of the monopolies commission. A puppet would never have managed to force the same government to provide 130 million euros from the state treasury to subsidize the required decoders, which in turn are to be supplied by a firm owned by the prime minister's brother. That sum, 130 million euros, represents almost a quarter of the state culture budget (from which the same amount has been cut). Nor would a puppet be powerful enough to send the fox who designed this law, namely Frattini, to look after the geese in Brussels. This "puppet", thumbing his nose at Europe, operates behind the scenes too. He embodies the new way of doing things: politics, media, business, law, all in the same hands, but democratically elected.

Currently there are only three weak points: the economy, the judiciary and the electorate. The economy, of all things, is the Achilles' heel of the prime businessman. His own companies' profits have tripled during this parliament, but the country is going to the dogs. Italy has wilted year after year and now has the worst statistics in Europe. Growth 0.0 percent.

Second comes the judiciary, Frattini's department. For five years the judicial system has faced the sharpest attacks and most blatant "reforms". These days the minister of justice – currently a road engineer from the Lega Nord, or Northern League – can accuse judges of "gross misjudgement" and subject them to disciplinary punishments. He has the power to move cases to courts where he believes the judges to be more obliging. International legal assistance has been decisively restricted to impede investigations against Berlusconi's business empire. Prosecutors investigating the Mafia lose their bodyguards, as a cost-cutting measure of course. And the prime minister himself can slander and defame judges and state prosecutors week in week out. But all that is nothing compared to the so-called judicial reform of 2005, which amounted to a "victory of the thieves" (Süddeutsche Zeitung) – silently tolerated by Frattini and the European institutions.

In the Italian legal system cases drag on endlessly and most never come to a conclusion. A World Bank report of 2004 on the efficiency of the legal system put Italy in 135th place – second last, just ahead of Guatemala. The main reason is that the limitation period for crimes continues to run after a trial has opened, and even after a verdict has been passed, right up until the final day of the final instance. Consequently lawyers try to prolong legal proceedings as long as possible. In 2004 alone 210,000 cases fell under the statute of limitations. The perfect scenario for well-off defendants to get away scot-free. Berlusconi himself has profited this way several times.

A well-governed state might have an interest in changing this state of affairs, for example by introducing the usual procedure of suspending the statute of limitations when a trial begins. The governing majority has indeed gathered the energy to make changes, but in an unexpectedly creative way. The limitation periods have now been considerably shortened, from fifteen to seven and a half years, specifically for economic crimes and corruption. There will be no more sentences for the top ten thousand criminals, Mafiosi, corrupt politicians.

The opposition opposes, powerlessly. President Ciampi can only send a bill back once, then he has to sign it. Television does little more than pass off such reforms as "quarrelling". There is censorship. Critical and impartial newspapers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In terms of press freedom, according to the American organisation Freedom House, Italy ranks 77th alongside Bolivia and Mongolia, only "partly free". Not really a matter of pride for a founding member of the European Union. But they do uphold the customs of Stalinism. For example, if Berlusconi has the misfortune to speak to an empty auditorium at the United Nations, the state-run RAI simply edits in footage of enthusiastically applauding delegates.

Whether out of generosity or blinded by love of the country, people fail to realize that this "puppet" would already be behind bars in most European countries. In the United States he would be castigated for eliminating punishment for accounting fraud. If we think in German terms, where politicians have resigned just because they used a few air miles from official trips for private journeys, a German Berlusconi would have had to resign at least a dozen times since 2001. And most of his ministers too. The magazine MicroMega recently drew up a list of the 25 "least presentable" parliamentarians, all already sentenced for corruption, some also for Mafia contacts. Twenty-one belong to the governing coalition, four to the opposition. And when you bear in mind how rare actual verdicts are…

And the voters? "All of us are tired", writes Alberto Scarponi, especially of politics. Week in, week out, Berlusconi grabs attention and headlines with antics that would count as a scandal north of the Alps, so the well of agitation is pretty much dry. The trick of coming up with a new piece of impudence every day grinds down his opponents. A second trick, of denouncing all his critics as "communist" or "anti-Italian" keeps them permanently on the defensive. On April 9 and 10 we will see if these tricks (still) work.

Of course many still admire him, this cunning mastermind, for the ruse of entering politics and inventing a party of his own, and using his staff, lawyers and business friends to escape prosecution. A party of personality cult, without votes, without statutes, "the world's last Stalinist party" as one junior minister and former Forza Italia member put it. But the majority has ceased to believe the "cavalier", because it is too obvious that he is serving his own interests rather than improving the general standard of living.

But he can rely on his partners. The racist Lega Nord, whose "new fascism" Europe opposes, remains loyal – to its financier, as we read. The post-fascists of the Alleanza Nazionale act statesmanlike, Berlusconi has made them respectable. The Christian democrats of the UDC, always drawn to the middle of the road, throw in the towel every time they might have a chance to draw the teeth from one of Berlusconi's laws. Now Alessandra Mussolini – who recently defended her grandfather on the grounds that his fascists exported democracy – and her party are on board too. And in the background, not to be forgotten, the church, in its usual furtively open manner, underscores its sympathies for the government. But of course this has nothing to do with the recent exemptions from property taxes it received from the government for its numerous properties.

The country is in a dismal state economically. The greed exhibited at the top of the government stands in the way of any improvement. Inflation is high. Corruption is increasing in leaps and bounds everywhere, especially in the south. Less and less resources flow into schools, universities, research, maintenance of cultural treasures and the health service. The voters would have reason enough to kick out the government.

The problem is simply: Who comes next? The honest, cautious Romano Prodi, who mumbles even his best lines from his script. The bigwigs of the Olive Tree alliance, whose public show of unity cannot conceal their rivalries. Reformed communists, greens, Christian democrats, socialists and others, united in a feeble election campaign with a dull manifesto.

Even if this colourful bunch stays united until April 10, the outgoing government has already ensured discord by changing the electoral law – just six months before the elections, by a simple majority. Where else would that be possible? A partial first-past-the-post system had been introduced in the mid-1990s, to produce stable coalitions. In fact, this change was the only reason Berlusconi enjoyed such a sweeping majority, despite both sides gaining almost the same number of votes in 2001. Only when the right-wing coalition came to fear that it would lose its stable majority did it change the electoral law – to prevent the Left gaining one itself. The countless parties of the Right, and even more so the Left, will spend even more energy differentiating themselves and bickering. Unfit for coalition, they will make the country even more unstable than it already is. One should not be so naive as to think there were no political cynics waiting for exactly that.

Assuming the fragile Prodi alliance were to hold for a while and manage to implement the neglected reforms and restore some of the basic democratic rights – five years would not be enough even to bring Italy back to where it was in 2001. So even if Berlusconi loses on April 10, he will not actually lose. As long as he can continue to profit from Europe's misplaced Italophilia. Or do we need another Buttiglione-style gay rights scandal to rouse Brussels and Strasbourg?


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on March 30, 2006.

Friedrich Christian Delius was born in Rome in 1943 and grew up in Germany. After studies at the Free University and the Technical University in Berlin, he works as a freelance author and divides his time between Berlin and Rome. Here the author's website in German.

Translation: Meredith Dale - let's talk european