The most surreal moment surrounding Silvio Berlusconi’s sentencing to a four-year jail term for tax fraud came soon after the Supreme Court in Rome had delivered its verdict. Italy’s former prime minister released a video, in which he vowed to relaunch his party under its original name of Forza Italia (Go Italy) and fight on to modernise the country.
Many voters felt 20 years younger when they heard the announcement. In 1994, the same sharp-dressed salesman had broadcast another message, declaring he would set up a political party to make Italy “fairer … richer … more modern”. Since then, Berlusconi has been in power for longer than any prime minister in Italy’s post-war history. That he repeats his old promises two decades later says much about how effective his four governments have been.
It also speaks to the state of Italy’s politics. Just as medieval Florence was divided between the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, who stood for the emperor, today’s Italy is split two ways. To one faction, Berlusconi is a buffoon, a liar and a criminal. To the other, he is the victim of politicised judges who have stopped him revolutionising the country. Like the protagonist of Groundhog Day (a film released at about the time Berlusconi first took office), Italians are stuck in a time loop, with the same controversies on repeat.
Berlusconi’s next moves are hard to predict. Having threatened to withdraw his party’s vital support from the government, he has changed tack and restated his loyalty. Yet his role as the pivotal figure of Italian politics is bound to fade. He will not be able to run in an election for six years. The senate, where he sits, will vote on whether to expel him. At 76, he no longer has time on his side.
As the Berlusconi era edges to its end, Italy’s political system needs a big bang. To voters struggling with the economic crisis, the ruling elites appear increasingly out of touch. Disillusionment has filled the sails of protest parties such as Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. But a string of local elections has shown that even he has fallen from favour. Turnout — traditionally high by western standards — is falling sharply.
Change is needed but it is not clear where it will come from. The mainstream parties have shown little interest in nurturing new talent. The mass exodus of young Italians is depriving politics of fresh blood. Old vices, such as political patronage and nepotism, will not disappear.
On the right, some hope a modern, pro-free market party can arise from the ashes of Berlusconi’s populism. But this is wishful thinking. Mario Monti, the former technocratic prime minister, tried to run on such a platform in the last election; his result was disappointing.
The most likely solution is dynastic. Picking Marina Berlusconi, Silvio’s eldest daughter and chairman of Fininvest, the family-controlled holding company, would solve two problems at once. The media empire would retain the direct political cover it has enjoyed since the early 1990s. The centre-right would still be able to rely on its backing. The continued fusion of political and media power would be useful for the Berlusconi family — though much less for Italy.
A generational shake-up is needed just as much on the left. One reason Berlusconi has dominated the political scene for so long is that he faced a divided and ineffective opposition. This is still true today. Six months after losing a vote that was theirs to win, the leaders of the Democrats are desperately clinging to the little power they have.
Matteo Renzi, the youthful mayor of Florence who came second to Pier Luigi Bersani in the party’s leadership contest, has the best chance of forcing a transformation. Some of his plans, which include pruning wasteful public spending to cut taxes for the less well off, are sound. He is also effective on television, a medium with which leftwing leaders have traditionally struggled.
Renzi hopes to be Italy’s Tony Blair and make the country trust the left, as the former UK prime minister did with Labour. But he has shown little interest in winning over the rank and file voters. Blair’s lesson is that parties are taken over from within. Renzi risks becoming extinct along with the political brontosaurs he intends to replace.
Some may rejoice at the idea of Berlusconi’s exit. But Italy’s future, even without him, does not look much brighter.