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Berlusconi: How Has He Lasted So Long? – Part One

Silvio Berlusconi

The title of this post is probably a question people around the world have been asking for some time.  More people may be asking similar questions in light of the recently reported words of Italy’s long serving prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who declared he detested Italy and that he intended leaving the country in a few months.

Italy-based Tqen, one of my 5,000 (12,000 in January 2013) or so @newsfromitaly Twitter followers, asked if I’d care to take a stab at explaining how Silvio Berlusconi has managed to hang on in there for so long.

Before I start the first of what is going to be a three part series (I started writing and the story just grew and grew), please note that I live in Italy, and have done so for well over 10 years.  I am not, however, Italian.

I’ve been following the politics of Italy more closely since I started this blog at the start of 2005.  I’d say that I know more than some, but not as much as others.  With that explanation stroke caveat, here goes my take on the Berlusconi phenomenon.  By all means feel free to correct and disagree with me.

This is my opinion and some of what I have written may not go down too well with my Italian readers.


Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi

Cultivating a network of contacts and friends has been an aspect of Italy’s culture for many years.

Certainly back in the 1960s, and most probably long before that, getting to where you wanted to go in Italy involved knowing or buttering up the right people.  It is largely the same today.

Silvio Berlusconi is a child of Italy’s “connections count” culture and has spent a lifetime cultivating a substantial network of contacts.

It is alleged, and has almost been proved, that Berlusconi has used money and favours to acquire the support he needed for certain projects.  Not only this, but it has been suspected for many years that Berlusconi made an unholy alliance with Italy’s infamous criminal organisation: the Sicilian mafia.  For certain groups of Italians, such alliances are a necessary evil.

Some Italians genuinely respect Berlusconi for his mastery of the Italian way of doing things.  Others though, see Berlusconi, his associates and those who support him, as being part of that age old Italian problem: Italy is a society in which meritocracy counts far less than knowing the right people.

Berlusconi is very much part of the Italy which believes having the right contacts is the only way to prosper in life.

Those who support Berlusconi appear to regard cronyism as a form of necessity.  This is probably because the “friendship” system has made some of them very, very wealthy and for them the system is fine as it stands.

Berlusconi gives the impression he wants to perpetuate such a system; it did, after all, make him extremely rich, and there will be a good number of people supporting him in this desire – people who see themselves as the “new Berlusconis”.

The younger members of Berlusconi’s party are people who believe they can benefit from Italy’s more or less traditional way of doing things.

Both the older supporters and the younger ones are happy for Berlusconi to stay where he is.

Now, let me take a look at why knowing the right people is such a fundamental aspect of Italian culture.  The answer lies in distrust.

Friendship and Distrust

Italians, not all, but a substantial number, do not trust their fellow countrymen.  As a people, they live in perpetual fear of someone getting one over on them.  I’ve noticed this myself, and research carried out by Gabrielle Calvi has confirmed the lack of trust Italians have for one another.

How does one manage such a situation?  By making friends with as many useful people as possible, or if amicable mutually beneficial relations cannot be established, loyalty is purchased.

Owing to levels of mutual distrust, another system which operates in Italy is what one might refer to as ‘pre-blackmail’.  The rich and powerful create detailed dossiers on their enemies.  No stones are left overturned, worm-filled cans are identified, and skeletons in closets tracked down, and everything is noted.

When the need arises, the party who is causing problems is treated to revelations, or the threat of them, regarding his or her past.

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Berlusconi has most probably amassed files upon files on his enemies and has allegedly used mud slinging tactics to blacken the names of those who dare criticize him.

Some examples: a judge who found against him found himself the subject of television reports and newspaper articles; former political partner Gianfranco Fini was also subjected to a media attack over a dubious property transaction.  Not much is heard about Fini these days.  A journalist who wrote an uncomplimentary article about Berlusconi had a broadside fired at him via Berlusconi-friendly media and ended up resigning.

Not only has Berlusconi built up a wide network of good friends and probably created dossiers on all those who he feels might betray him (and then some), but he also has a huge media network at his beck and call.

If bringing his media might to bear fails to silence those who speak ill of Berlusconi, he has the money to take people to court and ruin them.  He can certainly keep some off Italy’s national television channels.

In face of the power Berlusconi wields, those who would like to have a go at Berlusconi must think twice before stirring muddy waters.  It could be said that Berlusconi’s media might acts as a deterrent and helps maintain loyalty.

What this all adds up to is that open criticism of Berlusconi is a) kept to a minimum, and b) successfully countered.

It is probable that Berlusconi, who started out as a real estate developer, deliberately homed in on the media business in Italy because he understood just how effective a tool media power would be to help himself rise to the top.

And when no dirt can be found, it can be invented – which is, incidentally, a tried and trusted mafia tactic.   Often merely planting the seeds of doubt is enough to render criticism innocuous.

Silvio Berlusconi is expert at “keeping” friends and equally skilful keeping those who are not his friends quiet.  This skill has undoubtedly contributed to Berlusconi’s resilience.

The Vatican Factor

There have been intimate connections between Italy’s politics and the Vatican for a lot longer than Silvio Berlusconi has been on the scene.

Without the Vatican’s blessing political careers in Italy can reach a dead end.  The astute Berlusconi is as aware of this as any other politician in Italy.  He has done his utmost to keep the Vatican content.  Legislation has been passed to the benefit of Vatican run schools.

The Berlusconi led government is against abortion and for the sanctity of life, as is the Vatican.

The Vatican also enjoys significant tax breaks which the Berlusconi government either has not modified or has extended.

Although the Vatican might find Berlusconi’s actions morally questionable, in view of the charitable treatment it receives from his government, Berlusconi’s behaviour is, for the most part, tolerated.

Also ensuring that Vatican criticism of Berlusconi is minimal are cases involving the somewhat dubious financial activities of the Roman Catholic Church.  Take, for example, the case of the Bishop of Naples Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe who has been caught up in inquiries into corruption concerning property transactions in Rome.

Then there is Father Luigi Verzé of the San Raffaele hospital complex in Milan.  Berlusconi has been a supporter and associate of Don Verzé for many years.  As at the time of writing, investigations into a financial crisis concerning funding of the San Raffaele are in progress.  The case could cast a very dark light on the Vatican.

As you will have gathered, the savvy Berlusconi has worked hard to build a cosy relationship with the Vatican.  One suspects that Berlusconi has amassed information on numerous Vatican relationships and business transactions, the revealing of which would damage the Holy See gravely – which is probably yet another reason for the Vatican’s rather muted criticism of Silvio Berlusconi.

As long as the Vatican continues to find Berlusconi acceptable publicly, then so will the Roman Catholic contingent of Italy’s voters.

Cronyism and its close relation, distrust, combined with the friendship of the Vatican are some of the reasons why Berlusconi has managed to keep himself at the top for so long.

Part Two takes a look at several other factors which help keep Berlusconi afloat: Berlusconi: How Has He Lasted So Long? – Part Two

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