As one senior member of his inner circle told me during our meeting in the Italian Senate back in 2010: “His ideal is a party which does not give him too much cause for concern, which basically exists to provide him with power, and then it is up to him to use that power”.
If Berlusconi’s party existed to serve his needs, the same can be said of his governments. He promised voters a second Italian miracle, harking back to the glory days of the late 1950s. He delivered nothing of the sort.
In the decade from 2000 to 2010, Italy’s average growth, measured by GDP at constant prices, was just 0.25 per cent a year. It was the third-worst performer in the world over the period, ahead of only Haiti and Zimbabwe.
Italians under Berlusconi became poorer and, especially if they were young, were more likely to be unemployed than their counterparts in other European countries. Many of the more talented ones simply left. By the time his last government stepped down in November 2011, to be replaced by technocrats, Italy had the largest debt of any country in the European Union. The great entrepreneur who was going to run his country “like a business” had run it into the ground.
Instead, Berlusconi’s years in office were characterised by repeated clashes with the judiciary as he sought to finally shake himself free of its clutches. Laws were proposed to grant him immunity from prosecution, to make his other trials time out, and to reduce the severity of crimes he had been accused of.
And, of course, there were the sex scandals, the “bunga bunga” parties, the allegations of affairs with underage girls, the sexist jokes, the inappropriate behaviour at international meetings.
Some of the above should sound pretty familiar to followers of contemporary politics. Before Donald, there was Silvio. Berlusconi’s legacy, his breaking of the norms of acceptable political behaviour, his disdain for the checks and balances of liberal democracy, lives on through populist politicians not only in Italy, but across the West.
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Don’t speak ill of the dead. Italian commentators tend to piously respect the rule that when major public figures die, it is in poor taste to discuss their flaws, however glaring they were.
For that reason, Berlusconi will – yet again – benefit from soft media treatment in his own country. But the rest of us should not be so kind.
Duncan McDonnell is professor of politics at Griffith University.
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