The fractured left

I have found that, whenever I try to broach the subject of Silvio Berlusconi with Italians, my first couple of introductory comments are usually followed with a collective sigh, much shaking of heads and some times a sorrowfully-hung head staring wistfully into the still-steaming thimble of coffee.

When I lived outside Italy, and occasionally wrote about this beautiful country, I put this down to the large open-minded expat community that I surrounded myself with, who were more likely to pick up the Financial Times or the Economist than La Republica.

But, now I live here, I am finding more and more that I am getting the very same reaction from people who have lived in the country all their lives, don’t travel that much and (although admittedly intelligent) don’t speak very good English.

The other week, I was having a chat with a couple of friends of mine (in Italian) and they quite pointedly compared Berlusconi to war-time fascist Benito Mussolini. They enumerated a series of points that emphasised this similarity. A little spot of digging on the Internet and I came up with this, which, though some of the points could be contested, makes for interesting reading.

Like every other country I have ever lived in, I came to Italy with a completely open mind. I was prepared to turn a blind eye to some of the damning reports in the British media, and let myself be lulled by the thought that I would be in the heartland of good food, good wine and some of the most beautiful countryside I have seen in Europe.

Three months into my stay here, and I can now report that I am dismayed with how I see Berlusconi operating on a daily basis, and what others that I speak to think of him. I am even more dismayed to see the casual shrug of the shoulders by so many Italians, as they seem to be saying, “well, we just have to live with him”. I find myself wondering, time and again, how such proud people (“we have the best food/wine/fashion/music in the world” is a claim oft-repeated, and may very well be true) can find themselves so thoroughly embarrassed by the man that is supposed to be leading their country on the world stage. This year, Berlusconi will play host to the leaders of the G8 – and, since he clearly loves the international stage so much, is even talking about inviting some leaders from the wider G20.

The problem is very well put by that shrug that so many Italians have mastered so well: “what choice do we have?”

Over the weekend, it was announced that Silvio Berlusconi has decided to join forces with the National Alliance Party, headed by Gianfranco Fini, who, fifteen years’ Berlusconi’s junior, may very well see himself becoming the next PM. (A footnote that often makes an entry whenever the National Alliance is mentioned is that it was born from Mussolini’s old far-right party – a scrap of information not as irrelevant as it might seem).

For Berlusconi, the purpose of joining the two parties is clear: to command as big-a-majority as possible, ideally with himself at the helm. In last year’s election, the two parties won a combined 38% of the vote. If they merge, there is no one right now that could face them down – and may not be any time in the near future. No wonder Italians feel so dejected.

Ever since the early 1990s, when Berlusconi muscled in on the political scene, Italy’s left has been in hopeless disarray. In the 1980s, many left-wing politicians were tarred with the brush of corruption (this provided an opportunity for Berlusconi to seize the reigns of government) and the left just never seems to have recovered.

There have been some near-successes. In 2001, Francesco Rutelli, former Mayor of Rome and head of the Olive Leaf Coalition, looked like he might steal the election from under Berlusconi. But ultimately he failed. Romano Prodi, who I admit to having a soft spot for even though he has been a consistently weak and ineffectual politician (both as head of the European Commission in Brussels and on the national stage), managed to wrestle the premiership from Berlusconi on two separate occasions – only to lose it again because of his lack of charisma and seemingly directionless leadership (one or two of the more disturbing laws that the international media love to harp on about actually originated under  Prodi and not Berlusconi).

Last month, Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome and head of the centre-left Democratic Party, resigned following a poor showing in local polls – and underscored, perhaps more than any other recent event, quite how fractured the left is. Whilst Berlusconi has s tight grip on national media, and a coherent (though frequently intellectually dishonest) message to give voters, the left are struggling to understand where they are heading.

It is tragic that, right now, there really does appear no alternative for those Italians who have grown weary of Berlusconi and all that Italians are able to do is shrug and talk about the latest fashion parades in Milan or how 2002 was a very fine year for chianti. It’s a real shame and, as a western democracy, the country deserves better. The left owes it to these fine people to put up a leader who can provide a decent alternative to the right. And then we’ll see, through the ballet box, what Italians really think.

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