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A Media King Becomes Prime Minister (Again)

by Victoria de Grazia on May 16, 2001

On May 13, Silvio Berlusconi’s House of Freedoms electoral coalition swept Italy’s general elections. The Italian media mogul, Italy’s richest man, is now the incoming prime minister. How could that not be worrisome for democracy?

Politicians and political parties come and go. That’s the democratic way. But Silvio Berlusconi is no ordinary politician. In 1994, when he first served, briefly, as Italian premier, he was simply a fabulously wealthy businessman with a talent for self-promotion. Today he is a seasoned strongman delighting in the cult of personality.

Seven years ago, he resembled a glitzy Ross Perot. Today, he has become a Frankenstein political monster, as if Bill Gates’s monopolistic genes were bonded with Marc Rich’s smooth crookedness and Saddam Hussein’s despotic vanity. He makes magical promises to cut taxes, make jobs and undertake giant public works. He manipulates his media empire to thrust his image into every nook and cranny of the Italian peninsula. He airily dismisses his near-monopoly over the Italian media as a non-issue.

Berlusconi’s political debut came in 1994 when the Italian party system collapsed after the end of the Cold War. The Olive Tree Coalition, made up of elements from the old socialist and communist left, and the Christian democrats picked up the disoriented left-center vote. The newcomer Berlusconi, already famous for his media holdings and for owning the AC Milan soccer team, picked up the remaining electorate by patching together an odd alliance of market fundamentalists, Catholic conservatives, rowdy northern separatists and belligerent neo-fascists. With his own brand-new party, Let’s Go Italy, in the lead, his improvised coalition won.

When his fractious allies fell to fighting and the government collapsed, he was sidelined. But Berlusconi showed a zeal for power. His electoral comeback against the center-left seven years after he was ousted bodes less a mere change of administration than a change of regime.

Business corruption was a hallmark of the First Republic, which lasted from 1946 to 1992. Berlusconi made his fortune in real estate, financial dealings and media takeovers by bending all of the rules of Italy’s notoriously wild-west business culture. However, reformers vowed that the Second Republic would have “Clean Hands.” The new Italy needed to be ruled with transparency to promote democracy, modernize the business establishment and participate effectively in the European Union.

When the “clean hands” magistrates investigated Berlusconi, and many other businessmen and politicians, they focused on the origins of his fortune and the operations of his vast secret offshore empires. There was an array of serious charges, including money laundering, tax evasion, complicity in murder and the bribing of tax police, politicians and judges.

His best defense against going to jail was a good political offense. He claimed he was being persecuted by the left establishment for his politics and that his dealings were simply normal business practice. His victory Sunday is therefore a huge defeat for the Italian magistracy. Berlusconi now gains parliamentary immunity from charges. He is also in a position to defang further the already beleaguered legal system. One promise he has already made is legislation to decriminalize false accounting, one of the charges against him.

American political campaigns have amply shown how private fortunes can buy an election by purchasing media time. John Corzine’s New Jersey Senate campaign was notorious. Berlusconi doesn’t have to buy time. He owns outright all three of Italyís leading commercial television channels and a big chunk of publishing as well.

Under the First Republic, Italian political parties were subsidized by patrons abroad, including both the Soviet Union and the United States and rake-offs from private interests. Electoral laws passed recently provide for modest public financing of political parties. But nobody expected the need for huge media expenditures Berlusconi’s campaigning imposed on all of the parties, but which he alone could afford. None of the opposition parties could compete. And none will be able to in the foreseeable future.

How will this vast power be wielded now that Berlusconi has been elected? Business interests so huge, so convoluted and so concealed that even judges and investigators can’t pierce them certainly will make for a gargantuan conflict with the affairs of state. Berlusconi has toyed with divestment, blind trusts and parking his assets with fellow media magnates Rupert Murdoch and Leo Kirch. He has vowed that in his first hundred days he would pass legislation on divestment. As usual, his promise came with a caveat: passage of the law would depend on the will of the whole political system. But that will may be perverted. Between the private channels he owns and public ones whose director he appoints, he will control 90 percent of television broadcasting.

Mussolini’s political genius, the playwright Luigi Pirandello said, lay in making the passage from the stage to the mass media. Master of the piazza, the Duce was first and foremost a consummate journalist. His political fortunes grew out of the Popolo d’Italia, the newspaper that industrialists financed for him in 1915 in exchange for his support for Italy to enter World War I. Scurrilous and authoritarian before coming to power, Mussolini, once he became prime minister, controlled the media by employing censorship and bribery to close down the opposition press.

Berlusconi’s political genius grew out of turning tele-spectators and soccer enthusiasts into personal fans and voters. However long he stays in office, Berlusconi, like another “man of destiny,” will pose rich historical questions. One in particular is especially worth pondering: whether giant media power concentrated in political hands can be compatible with the survival of a democratic civic culture.

Victoria de Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of "The Culture of Consent: Mass Organization of Leisure in Fascist Italy" (1981) and a writer for the History News Service.