Italy’s unfashionable elections

After Silvio Berlusconi's election - is Italy really the hotbed of extremism and corruption the European press claimed it to be?

Dominic Standish

Topics Politics

Among Europeans, Italians are often perceived as stylish. But during the build-up to Silvio Berlusconi’s election as prime minister, the European press portrayed Italy as an un-European banana republic of political extremism and wealthy corruption.

This campaign was led by the UK Economist, which used its front cover to picture Berlusconi below the headline ‘Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy’. Its leader article began:

‘In any self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable that a man assumed to be on the verge of being elected prime minister would recently have come under investigation for, among other things, money-laundering, complicity in murder, connections with the Mafia, tax evasion and the bribing of politicians, judges and the tax police.’

This was followed by similar allegations in Spain’s leading conservative daily, El Mundo, France’s leading daily, Le Monde, and German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Berlusconi’s unfashionable image in Europe was not helped by the fact that the only person who seriously attempted to defend him was the former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in a letter to the Italian press.

The criticisms of Berlusconi ranged from his media assets to the criminal charges against him. The first perceived problem is that Berlusconi is widely regarded as Italy’s richest man, with interests in TV, football, financial services, publishing, property, film, video rentals, telephone directories and the internet.

But modern European politics, in the style of UK prime minister Tony Blair and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, is supposed to rise above the representation of wealth and interests – the issue that so dogged their Conservative and Christian Democrat predecessors.

Berlusconi’s defence to this charge is that, because he is rich, he does not need to make money from politics in the way that other politicians have. Wealth did not seem to be a problem for politicians when The Economist endorsed George W Bush during his election campaign for the US presidency, despite his family’s well-known interests in the energy business.

The second group of accusations are connected with the investigations into the irregularities in Berlusconi’s businesses. Indeed, Berlusconi has already been found guilty on corruption charges, but he has either appealed successfully or the charges have lapsed in the appeals system. Under Italian law, the statute of limitations means that, after a long period of time since the offence, the conviction is quashed. So he has no definitive convictions, but some guilty verdicts.

He still faces charges of false accounting, bribery, tax fraud and a breach of anti-trust laws in Spain with the media company Telecinco. Baltasar Garzon, the magistrate in Spain who led the campaign to bring Chile’s Augusto Pinochet to justice, wants Berlusconi’s immunity as a member of the European Parliament lifted, so that he can be investigated.

The guilty verdicts against Berlusconi prove that there have been irregularities in his business activities. While this should be criticised, we should remember the charges against many politicians who have risen to the top, from Bill Clinton to Helmut Kohl.

And such irregularities have been particularly common in Italy. Seven times Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, known as ‘Mr Italy’, was only recently acquitted on charges of links to the Mafia and murder. Such was the weight of evidence against him that he was indicted again this year.

But the European media’s criticisms of the Italian election have not been limited to Berlusconi. The coalition that he leads, the House of Freedom, includes the former fascist party, the National Alliance (AN), the Northern League (NL) and a small far right Sicilian party, Tricolour Flame Movement (MFT).

While none of these parties can be considered fascist, racist remarks have been attributed to members of these parties, especially the Northern League leader Umberto Bossi. In the aftermath of the reaction to Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, the inclusion of these parties in the election of Italy’s new government has led some, such as Belgium foreign minister Louis Michel, to call for the European Union (EU) to ostracise Italy from Europe.

But as a strong player in the EU, Italy is taken more seriously than Austria. Germany’s interior minister, Otto Schily, has ruled out German sanctions against Italy, remarking that ‘the choices of the Italian people should be respected’. The European Commission may also have learned from the headache created by the sanctions against Austria.

The Economist and other publications should be free to criticise Italian politicians. But sanctions or other forms of intervention within the EU should not undermine the democratic choices of Italians, just because Italy’s election was considered unfashionable in European countries run by parties claiming to be centre-left.

In addition, all three of these overtly racist parties did badly in the election, proving that there is not an increasing ‘hard’ racist vote in Italy. The NL vote more than halved and the AN lost three percent compared with the 1996 election, while the MFT got less than one percent of the vote.

The ultimate irony is that, when the policies of the House of Freedom coalition are examined, they are not very different from those of most leading European governments or the opposition coalition in Italy, the Olive Tree. The House of Freedom coalition was elected on a platform of tax cuts, tightening immigration, lightening the weight of government, reducing crime, more European integration, and reforming education.

The only differences between the policies of the two coalitions were in the extent of tax cuts, restrictions on immigrants and infrastructure projects, and the type of educational reform.

The only radically different policies were represented by smaller parties which had no chance of being elected, such as the Radicals of Emma Bonino (free scientific research, the moring-after pill, euthanasia, soft drugs, embryonic stem-cell research) and the Refounded Communists (RC) (anti-NATO and better workers’ rights). But these parties did not represent serious opposition to the House of Freedom coalition, with Bonino falling below the four percent needed for representation in parliament, and the RC scraping in with just over five percent.

Maybe this was why the European press attacks on Berlusconi’s coalition had such an impact in the media in Italy: the opposition Olive Tree had little to oppose Berlusconi with. The Olive Tree leader and former mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, had no distinctive policies, and his experience of national government was limited to one day as environment minister before he resigned.

The lack of policy differences between the two leading coalitions meant the electoral debate was often reduced to banalities, such as who was the better-looking candidate. One of Berlusconi’s electoral ploys was to send out a book, An Italian Story, to 11million Italian households in key areas. This was little more than a photograph album of Berlusconi the family man, the businessman and great statesman.

No wonder that Italians were turned off by such vacuous campaigns. Polls showed that most Italians were also relatively disinterested in the issue of Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest between politics and business, despite the interest of the European press.

Many Western commentators heralded the turnout in the election as high, at 81.2 percent. But this is more a reflection of Western preoccupations with voter apathy in the aftermath of the US presidential election, and an overreaction to the long queues that kept polling open late on the Italian election night, due to fewer polling stations and additional ballot papers.

By Italian standards 81.2 percent is not high: a turnout of 82.9 percent in the 1996 general election was widely discussed as a sign of growing apathy. Italy traditionally has had some of the highest voting figures in general elections in Europe. Between 1946 and 1976 the average percentage who voted hovered around 93 percent.

When the stakes were high in a society divided into Christian Democrats and communists, voting represented a call to arms. But voting now appears to be a very passive, individual choice between leading coalitions with few policy differences.

Despite attempts by the leading candidates and the European press to portray the election as a battle between communists and racists or businessmen and bureaucrats, the reality was that most voters recognised how banal the whole affair was. Polls showed that 20 percent had not decided who to vote for one week before the election.

Unfortunately, in this sense, the Italian election was fashionable. It mirrored the lack of engagement in last year’s US presidential elections. Let’s only hope the UK general election will be different. After all, the British are not known for being fashionable.

Dominic Standish writes comment articles for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consultancy in the Veneto region of Italy (

(1) The Economist, 28 April 2001

(2) ‘Crunch Time’, The Economist, 4 November 2000

(3) Berlusconi Secures Crucial Senate Majority, New York Times/Reuters, 14 May 2001

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Topics Politics


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