By Guy Dinmore in Rome
Italians are preparing firework parties in expectation of Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation as prime minister. But such has been his domination of Italian public life for the best part of two decades that their celebrations will be muted by apprehension they have not seen the end of him.
There is also a sense of remorse that it was not the voters that drove him from office, but anonymous market forces.
Mr Berlusconi, first elected nearly 18 years ago, carved out a formidable political record as Italy’s longest serving post-war prime minister. But as he packs his official bags over the weekend his legacy remains a demoralised and debt-crippled country on the brink of needing an international bail-out.
Far from delivering the “liberal revolution” he repeatedly promised, the billionaire media baron, now 75, has presided over economic stagnation, declining competitiveness and pervasive corruption that brought down the old political order he pledged to bury in 1994.
His personal conduct enriched the scandal lexicon – with “bunga bunga” and “Go Pussy” – but heaped humiliation on Italy on the international stage, where it punches far below the weight deserved by the world’s seventh largest economy.
Shunned in western capitals, Mr Berlusconi instead sought the embrace of dictators such as Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi and semi-autocrats such as Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“Italians, with Berlusconi, saddled themselves with all the worst aspects of the First Republic pre-1994 – exaltation of private over public interests, a weak sense of the state, clientelism and corruption,” commented Christopher Duggan, British historian of Italy.
“The systematic denigration of the pillars of the republic – the judiciary, the presidency, the constitution – and the deliberate subordination of parties and party programmes to personality and media images have left the country with little in the way of a political compass.”
Abroad, the womanising premier will be remembered, even missed, for his entertainment value. But Italians are far more preoccupied with his failure to develop the economy, whose slide down the global league tables is well documented in the nearly nine years that Mr Berlusconi has held office since 2001.
Even Mongolia and Zambia ranked higher in the latest World Bank “ease of doing business survey” which placed Italy 87th in its global ranking, down another four notches over the past year. In terms of enforcing contracts, Italy ranked 158th.
Failure to cut public spending and the privileges of the elite, coupled with feeble growth, have resulted in Italy’s debt to gross domestic product ratio climbing from 109 per cent in 2001 – when Mr Berlusconi won his second of three general elections – to a projected 120 per cent this year, a level only surpassed by Greece in the eurozone.
The steady deterioration, accompanied by an alarming brain-drain, has been mirrored by Mr Berlusconi’s own declining business fortunes, despite his government’s manipulation of legislation to favour his personal interests and keep him out of the courts.
According to Forbes, Mr Berlusconi and family had a net worth of $6.2bn this month (before his Mediaset company recorded further sharp falls on the bourse), down from $10.3bn a decade ago.
Just as he has sought to cling to power to preserve his business empire and immunity from prosecution, it was the ailing state of his companies that drove Mr Berlusconi to launch his audacious entry into politics in the 1994 elections. He concocted a rags to riches story that tantalised Italians sick of the old political order that was being destroyed in the tangentopoli – Bribesville – scandals.
Building on his success with AC Milan football club, which he bought in 1986 and took to two European Cups and three consecutive league titles, Mr Berlusconi broke the mould of business and politics, challenging state media monopolies and naming his first party Forza Italia – Go Italy – after a football chant.
Explaining Mr Berlusconi’s fatal attraction to Italian voters, Paolo Guzzanti, a senator and journalist who is among many to have broken ranks over the years, said: “The man directly incarnates a collection of ideals, expectations, hopes, technical abilities and common and shared feelings, which make of him an immediate yet complex leader.”
Mr Berlusconi as the anti-politician taking on what Italy calls the “powerful forces” – the political elite, the Church, the trades unions, big corporations, the left-dominated academia and cultural world – is how he will be remembered by many of his supporters, with nostalgia for that moment in 1994 when Il Cavaliere vowed to “take the field” in order to “save Italy”. But as Geoff Andrews, author and political scientist at the Open University, judges: “There is much, much more to be said about the negative impact of Berlusconi’s rule.” Though legitimately elected three times, he had not ruled by the conventions of liberal democracy but by a “corrupted liberalism” which depended on patronage and a servile relationship between him and his followers.
Italians call it simply “Berlusconismo”.
Maria Latella, editor of “A” magazine and author of a biography of Veronica Lario, the former Mrs Berlusconi, said Italy’s failure to honour meritocracy was entrenched before the former cruise-ship crooner and construction entrepreneur developed his television empire and then launched into politics.
What she called his pollution of society was to spread that system of patronage, rewarding former topless models and TV showgirls with political posts and in the process delivering a powerful message to younger women. Noemi Letizia, the surgically adjusted teenager whose relationship with Mr Berlusconi was the last straw for his wife, said simply: “I’d like a career in show business or politics.”
But after his third election victory in 2008, Mr Berlusconi’s powers to knit together a viable coalition out of eurosceptic devolutionists, Catholics, post- and neo-fascists and elements of the old order started to unravel. His own battles with the courts – where he faces three trials – and failure to protect those close to him from avenging prosecutors have led to a steady erosion of his aura as the all-powerful immortal.
“The cemeteries are full of indispensable men,” remarked Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of the Catholic UDC party that broke ranks with Mr Berlusconi in 2008. But, warned Il Fatto, a campaigning newspaper and implacable enemy of the premier: “Don’t give him for dead.”
See online: Berlusconi not yet given up for dead