How Berlusconi blew Italy’s chance to come clean
They called it Tangentopoli. ‘Tangenti’ is one of the Italian words for ‘bribes’, and Tangentopoli summed up the idea that Italian politics had become a game of Monopoly fuelled by kickbacks.
I spent a lot of time in Italy in the 90s, starting with a story for ‘Foreign Correspondent’ in April 1993. Tangentopoli had convulsed the country, with magistrates uncovering vast swathes of corruption involving most of the leading political figures of the previous three decades.
My first encounter with the new reality came in a town in Abruzzo called Chieti. It was a sort of magnified microcosm of Italy, because almost every councillor on the local government had been arrested for corruption.
They’d all been at it: the councillors of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, the DC, and the members elected for the Socialist Party.
That reflected the situation in the country as a whole, where the former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, had fled to North Africa to escape the investigators, and the former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti faced trial for involvement with the Sicilian Mafia.
In Chieti, a situation which could have had its comic-opera moments was actually quite serious; its most glaring symbol was a hospital the town badly needed, but which had remained half built and empty for years because so many of the councillors had been on the take, and the bribes had just run out.
I say ‘almost’ every councillor had been arrested. The glaring exception was an elderly Fascist, who had apparently never taken a bribe, probably because he was so marginal to the council’s affairs.
Not any more.
An affable gentleman by the name of Nicola Cucullo, he took us around the now leaderless town, demonstrating the ways in which his colleagues had plundered the place, and clearly demonstrating by his popularity that he was the likely beneficiary of their arrests.
So in 1993, when our film crew visited for the first time, Chieti , like the whole country, was effectively a political vacuum.
For a brief period, the moral and political centre of Italy had moved away from the Parliament and towards the judiciary.
In the south, magistrates like the brilliant and determined Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino had made such massive inroads into the Mafia’s dominions that, tragically, the Mafia felt compelled to blow them up.
In the north, with less physical threat, magistrates led by Milan’s Antonio di Pietro were forensically pursuing corruption into every corner of the political world, in an operation known as Mani Pulite, or Clean Hands.
It was, I thought, a brief moment of opportunity for a country whose entire post-war life had been dominated by the Cold War, from the 1940s on.
For nearly half a century, the US and its Allies had been haunted by the fear that Italy, with its large Communist Party, might fall into the shadow of the Soviet Bloc.
The events of 1989 had erased that fear, and Italians, in 1992-3, had a chance of a new start.
But it didn’t last long.
If things had gone well, when we went back to Chieti in 1994, there might have been a new, cross-party, anti-corruption local government in place. Instead, the new Mayor of a far-Right-dominated council was – our old acquaintance the Fascist Nicola Cucullo.
That was the local microcosm: nationally, there was a rising tide of support for a new movement called Forza Italia. Named after the football chant “Go Italy”, this was, of course, the brainchild of the communications billionaire Silvio Berlusconi.
You could argue that Forza Italia could only have thrived in times like those. The existing political parties were in ruins. There was no infrastructure and no preparation for new ones.
Berlusconi had the money, the TV stations and the corporate PR network to step in and, effectively buy his way to power.
His party looked on the surface like many other European parties, but even then there were signs that one of its chief purposes would be to maintain and build the corporate interests of Berlusconi himself.
His first encounter with power, which was that very year, 1994, was brief, because his majority was too small.
But Silvio Berlusconi has held the reins in Italy now for most of the last decade. He must have begun to think himself untouchable.
His utter domination of media ownership has meant that for much of that time most Italians have seen, heard and read little about his financial and other excesses.
One of many, many examples: a lawyer named David Mills, married to a British Cabinet Minister, was found guilty of accepting a bribe from Berlusconi of nearly $650,000 to tell lies for him in court.
Berlusconi came away scot-free.
But even billionaires can’t insulate themselves against everything. The lurid headlines in the last few months about “bunga bunga” parties attended by prostitutes were bad enough.
Then it emerged that one of the prostitutes, Ruby Rubacuore, or Ruby the Heartstealer, was under age, and that Berlusconi had intervened to get her out of police custody on the spurious grounds that she was related to (of all people) Egypt’s President Mubarak.
And so it’s back to the judicial system, and Milan’s Judge Cristina di Censo, who’s ordered Berlusconi to stand trial for procuring sex with an under-age girl and trying to cover it up.
The man they call the Cavaliere, The Knight, has excellent lawyers and plenty of them: he may escape yet again. But his reputation is now massively damaged, and he has hurt his nation’s image even more.
Whether or not he faces judicial sanction, Italy may soon be at another turning point, the second opportunity in two decades to shape its future for the better.
We can only hope that things will work out a little better this time. Because in terms of true openness, rationality, democracy and pluralism, these have been wasted years.
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