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Italy’s Oligarch: The Berlusconi Story

Has Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brought back a medieval style of power play?

July 8, 2003

Has Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brought back a medieval style of power play?

People outside of Italy are currently devoting too much time to the verbal gaffes coming out of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's current Prime Minister.

Instead, what one should focus on is how the Italian P.M. is exploiting the weaknesses of a political system that seems increasingly like a throwback to medieval history. While Italy’s government appears more stable now than at many points in the past, this is due mostly to the utter disarray evident in the various opposition parties.

The main problem, in other words, is that Italy’s political scene — especially on the left — is hopelessly splintered. The country’s opposition parties are like ancient towns and principalities — with princes primarily focused on fighting each other.

When the Communist threat was there, Italy had enough glue to hold its politics together. Now, that this threat is gone, Italy is at a loss on how best to upgrade its old system of government into a more efficient 21st century model.

Mr. Berlusconi, who has just been handed the EU presidency for the next six months, has exploited Italy's landscape skillfully, by relying on his superb skills of moving effortlessly between business and politics — in the same way Russia's best oligarchs do.

But unlike Russia’s oligarchs, Berlusconi has both wealth — $5.9 billion according to Forbes Magazine — and political power. His ruling party, Forza Italia!, is the dominant party in government.

The fascinating thing about Berlusconi is that he operates, in large part, like a Russian. Imagine if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was a multibillionaire who owned and controlled the country's television stations and its entire stock exchange.

Even in Russia, however, there are limits to one's bravado.The biggest oligarchs never become prime ministers. Or, if they do, they are neither exceedingly wealthy nor totally dominant. Nor do they own and control the country's major media.

In addition, there are other tycoons to confer with who serve to limit one's freedom of maneuver. Not so in Italy. There, all the old tycoons — the Agnellis, the de Benedetois, and so on — have withered away. Nobody effectively stands in Berlusconi's way. His Napoleonic bravado easily wins the day.

Rome is a beautiful city for tourists, yet it is an unmanageable city. For all its beauty, it simply is not an efficient administrative center — it does not, for example, have a working subway system that's worthwhile. You would not want to run an entire country out of there, because it just does not have the beginnings of an infrastructure.

It remains an ancient town, a giant stage for drama that has been thrust 2,000 years forward. With that said, the marvelous country of Italy, and its highly civilized population probably is, in and by itself, the most cultivated nation on earth. But then you wonder why it cannot do better as a whole.

This is where regional differences come into play. Most Northern Italians are focused on making money — they view politics in Rome as the pits. That disdain is what makes everything in Italy so complicated.

It allows individuals like Mr. Berlusconi — if they have the guts — to exploit all the inefficiencies of the political system and the business system. In that category, Prime Minister Berlusconi is a master bar none.

Mr. Berlusconi, however, is not just a brilliant businessman. He is also a sly robber baron — because he combines a certain level of sophistication with a strong dose of proletarian touch.

Ultimately, the "Italian street", similar to the term Arab street, likes its devil, which is why he was elected. He impresses many Italians with his ability to exploit the system. This is the root of his popular appeal.

Italy will have to live with Mr. Berlusconi in office a while longer since there really is not another alternative.

The problem is that the Italian political landscape is still too confused. The left is marred by the constant infighting of little clubs that reveal the unlikeliness of unseating Mr. Berlusconi.

Politically speaking, the Italian left today is as split up as the ancient city-states of Italy's history — when these ancient principalities ferociously fought against each other.

As long as the act of taking profound delight in fighting your neighbor remains the key operating principle for Italian politics, there will be little progress. And Mr. Berlusconi is left without a real counterweight.

All of that is why people outside of Italy cannot be blamed if they confuse Silvio Berlusconi with Bernardo Bertolucci, the great Italian movie director. The best way to comprehend what's going on in Italy is to see life as a movie. This is most acceptable if we view it with the same surreal mindset we use for movies.