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Ciao Berlu! How does Berlusconi do it?

Berlusconi: immortal political survivor? Or boorish, manipulative clown? Photo: DonkeyHotey on flickr.The abuse of office, the soliciting of underage girls for sex, political blunders, alleged mafia connections, yet charismatic, energetic, brilliant and rich? During the course of his flamboyant political career, the phenomenon Silvio Berlusconi has been applauded and booed for his actions and character. It would seem that the inhabitants of Italy are intertwined with Berlusconi in a complicated, paradoxical love-hate relationship.

Berlusconi first entered politics in 1994, when the Italian parliament was severely fractured. Although Italian politics is often noted for its unstable nature, the opposite is true. After the Second World War, the Christian Democrats, representing the democratic centre, were in power for most of the time as the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was expelled due to external pressure from the United States. However, scandals concerning allegations of corruption at the end of the 80’s ended the Christian Democratic party’s political dominance. After these events, a lack of unity was prevalent within Italian politics, opening the way for Berlusconi. By presenting his political party, ‘Forza Italy’ (Go Italy), as a fresh alternative to the existing political landscape, he earned the majority of the vote and became Prime Minister for the first time in 1994.

The political career of Silvio Berlusconi, who became Prime Minister twice more, has had its ups and downs. Berlusconi’s latest plunge came in 2011, when his image took a catastrophic blow as he had to make way for the technocrat Mario Monti, whose task it was to restructure the Italian economy. However, after less than two years, Berlusconi displayed himself as a force to be reckoned with as he came second in the latest election, showing he is still able to battle for centre stage in Italian politics. Many have dubbed him a political survivor who, despite his many flirtations with political suicide, manages to resurrect himself over and over again. Therefore, it goes without saying that Berlusconi is one of the most colourful contemporary politicians who has left his mark on the history of Italy. Furthermore, his rich political career has prompted a multitude of researchers, journalists and others seeking to explain the Berlusconian phenomenon to ask: How does he do it?

It is often claimed that Berlusconi integrated the style of American politics into Italy. Two notable political tools have been adopted from the United States. As a result, Prof. James Walston argues that this has altered the mindset of Italian citizens.

Starting in 1994, Berlusconi changed political communication by bringing marketing into politics. Using television, he transferred the political arena from the conventional parliamentary field to that of simplified politics. Being an entrepreneur, Berlusconi knew all too well how to exploit his new-found advantage in mass-communication. Forza Italia was a political product that had to be sold to the public. This was achieved through numerous ads and television spots that flooded the Italian media during Berlusconi’s campaigns. In 2004, Italian legislators were accused of sacrificing pluralism and democracy by The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Regarding a court ruling which helped maintain Berlusconi’s stranglehold over the media, Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, stated, “This decision further reinforces Mr Berlusconi’s control over 90% of television – in the private and public sector… Even worse, it permits him to acquire more newspapers and radio stations and strengthens his grip on the country’s media landscape.”

Berlusconi seduces the camera at a political rally for his People of Freedom party. Photo: Eddypedro on flickr.

The conflation of the traits of a charismatic leader and his role as a media-tycoon results in a deadly combination of political campaigning tools. These two factors combined allow the rich media mogul to be able to connect to the Italian people by making them feel as if he is one of them. Even during the most recent elections, he has shown that he is willing to use every communicative means at his disposal to turn the political tide in his favour. Berlusconi sent a great number of letters to Italian households in which he made a promise to revoke some of the austerity measures implemented by Monti by reimbursing a controversial property tax.

As for the second political tool, he created a common enemy which he could distance himself from. Herman and Chomsky (1988) claim in their work ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ that creating a common enemy functions as a social control mechanism. Berlusconi likes to appeal to the deep-rooted threat of communism, an inheritance of the Cold War. To date, he continues to do this by calling Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party, a communist. It is worth nothing whether the communist threat is existent or not. Berlusconi simplifies politics by making it understandable, so he is therefore able to convey a clear message to Italian voters.

Some months ago, no political analysts gave Berlusconi’s Freedom Party a chance of becoming a large political entity. However, the recent elections have once again shown that Berlusconi is still able to revive his political career as his party became Italy’s second largest, behind only the Democratic Party. Whether the Italians will benefit from Berlusconi’s comeback remains to be seen. For now, the process of forming a governing coalition in Italy remains deadlocked.

 

BENNY WILBRINK

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