Dressed up as a tropical dictator in a sketch by the great Italian political cartoonist Altan, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wears a double-breasted camouflage jacket, a goony grin on his face and a large banana slung over his hip like a machete. “I was democratically elected,” Berlusconi is sighing. “But I deserved much, much better.”
The perception that Italy’s premier TV tycoon has brought the country to the brink of banana democracy–as the Italian daily La Repubblica calls it–is one that torments many in Italy these days. When a prime minister is on trial for criminal charges as serious as corrupting judges; when, with utter disregard for any conflict of interest standards, he maintains control of all but one of the country’s national TV channels and a sizable piece of its publishing industry while holding office; when virtually the only laws he passes are ad personam measures that promote his own business and legal interests; when he noisily attacks the judiciary and journalists who dare to criticize him; when he makes grievous faux pas in foreign policy–when Berlusconi does all these things and more, one naturally begins to worry about the state of Italian democracy. As Primo Levi warned, “Every age has its Fascism,” not necessarily accompanied by “terror and police intimidation.” Democracy, Levi pointed out, can be undermined by “withholding or manipulating information, polluting the judicial system and paralyzing the school system, by encouraging in many subtle ways nostalgia for a world in which order reigns supreme.”
Fortunately, basic freedom of speech is still intact in Italy, where scores of writers have focused their sights on Berlusconi and his excesses. A search of an Italian Internet bookseller turned up seventy-six titles that included the name Berlusconi (and by no means do all books on the subject have his name in the title), all but a handful of them critical of the Prime Minister. The list of authors includes an impressive number of Italy’s leading intellectuals, right down to Nobelist Dario Fo, who with Franca Rame has written and performed a withering, surrealist theater piece about the prime minister, L’Anomalo bicefalo (“the two-headed anomaly”). It is just one of four extravagant works of fiction devoted to the Berlusconi phenomenon, alongside more straitlaced analyses by jurists, economists and political scientists.
It’s been ten years since Berlusconi threw his hat into the political arena, or “stepped onto the field,” as he is fond of saying in one of his cherished sports metaphors. His first government, which came to power in 1994, lasted just seven months; in 2001 he was re-elected. A decade ago, when Berlusconi was founding the Forza Italia party, veteran Italian journalist Enzo Biagi asked him why he was running for office. To protect himself, Berlusconi said, because “they want me to go bankrupt and end up in jail.” He had plenty of reason to be concerned: His company Fininvest was in grave debt, the courts in Milan and Palermo had opened investigations of him and his associates on grounds of corruption and Mafia association, and his political protectors had been swept away in the huge Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) corruption scandals.