Just how stupid are those Italians? I mean, not only are they gullible – they’re really, really dumb.

Can't touch this. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi

I mean, take a politician like Silvio Berlusconi, who all us foreign journalists know to be sleazy and dishonest… And what do millions of voters do? They elect him. Not just once, mind you. Three times.

You heard me. In three elections Italians have voted for a prime minister who’s a charlatan or – even worse – a 21st Century incarnation of Benito Mussolini. In 2008 he even won an absolute majority in both houses of parliament.

Wow. Just what were 50 million eligible voters thinking? How limited must their understanding of politics be if they vote for a guy that most correspondents can easily identify as a dud while bashing out a 700-word analysis piece from their London-based European bureau without even getting out of their jarmies? 

Even if I knew nothing about Italian politics, after reading most reporting coming out of Italy, I would be starting to get suspicious. For a politician to get re-elected – even a politician who controls a lot of media outlet – there must be something more to him than showgirls, callgirls and hair transplants. 

And even if I did accept that Italian voters aren’t that sharp, could a country in which 80 per cent of eligible voters take part in an election really get it so wrong?

Well, here’s the news: there’s a lot more going on in Italian politics than foreign correspondents are either willing or able to tell us. And while Silvio Berlusconi is far from perfect, Italians aren’t shmucks. If il Cavaliere is still rating well in opinion polls, there are reasons for it – reasons that have little to do with his love-life.

The simple truth is that Italians vote for Berlusconi because they understand the complexity of this moment in Italy’s history. They’ve heard all about the prime minister’s legal woes and have concluded – rightly or wrongly – that they trust him more than the judges who are investigating him and the newspapers that are attacking him.

Above all, they trust him more than the country’s shambolic, backward-looking and ineffectual opposition. They made first made that decision in the 1990s, and they’ve yet to change their minds. Whether they did the right thing in electing Silvio Berlusconi isn’t the issue – what matters is that they knew what they were doing.

First up, let’s deal with some of the myths.

Italy’s two largest dailies, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, account for almost one half of all, non-sport dailies sold in Italy (each sells around 900,000 copies). The Roman La Repubblica is militantly hostile to the Berlusconi government; the Corriere, long seen as the mouthpiece of Milan’s old money, treats most of what Berlusconi says or does with a mild sense of horror.

While the Italian executive usually controls Italy’s public broadcaster, the country’s two top-rating TV programs, Ballarò and AnnoZero, are ferocious in their criticism of Berlusconi. The entire third network of the public broadcaster, RaiTre, is dominated by the left.

To suggest that Italians’ voting patterns are distorted by a lack of reliable information on Silvio Berlusconi is wrong and insulting. Italians are smart enough to get the information they need and few of those voting for Berlusconi would be unaware of his legal woes.

If there’s one aspect of Italian society that foreign media has missed, it’s the politicisation of the judiciary. Like all aspects of Italian society, the judiciary is split along party lines. There are judges on the left and on the right of politics and many of them are only too happy to take sides.

Magistrates in Italy assume the role of both investigators and judging judges. They are able to investigate anyone they want, bring that person to trial and even sit as the judging judge after preparing the case for the prosecution.

The powers at magistrates’ disposal are considerable. They can tap anyone’s calls – in fact, Italian phones are the most tapped in the western world. Transcripts of politicians’ phone conversations are quickly leaked to the media – particularly when they revealed salacious details of extra-marital affairs. And suspects can be thrown in jail with very little evidence against them – known as carcere preventivo.

Picture this: Kevin Rudd is pursued by a magistrate with links to the Liberal Party. The judge leaks the prime minister’s private phone conversations in an effort to damage his standing in the community, brings questionable and unsubstantiated charges against him and forces him to appear in court.

How would we respond to that in Australia? What would we make of unelected members of the judiciary – under the full protection of the constitution – becoming political players?

None of this is to say that there may not be some merit in the charges which left-wing magistrates regularly bring against Silvio Berlusconi. Yet voters appear to have weighed all of this up and decided to vote for him anyway.

When in the 1990s a whole generation of politicians was all but wiped out by the corruption scandals known as Tangentopoli, it left a void which needed to be filled. Berlusconi’s background as a businessman was a breath of fresh air and his cred as a self-made-man (a most unusual thing in Italy’s fossilised private sector) made him attractive.

All of that meant more to voters than the often unflattering history of how Berlusconi made his billions, as well as the problems of conflict of interest.

Italians preferred Berlusconi – with all of his flaws – to a left-wing opposition still dominated by crusty former communists who many had good reason not to trust.

This brings us to the opposition Democratic Party (PD), which has just elected former Communist apparatchik Pierluigi Bersani as its new leader. The PD just can’t win a trick: it stands for little other than opposing Berlusconi and it can’t move away from the dreariness of its Communist past. Berlusconi’s success is also a reflection of the appalling state of the country’s opposition.

None of this is to say that Berlusconi is the leader Italy deserves. Yet it was the Italians who came up with the concept of ‘holding your nose while voting’ – they did it for 50 years under the Christian Democrats.

That’s what they’re doing now: they prefer the smelly guy to subversive judges and grey, former Communists. And they know what they’re doing.

Most commented


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    • Steve says:

      08:40am | 10/11/09

      Thank you James Panichi.  Great to read something that asks the question ‘if he’s so bad, why is he still there?’.  Your point about the Italian judiciary is something often missed by Australians who are used to the idea of the inscrutable legal system.

      Not to say Silvio isn’t a buffoon or a criminal, maybe he is, but there are better reasons for his re-election than simple voter stupidity.

    • Carl Palmer says:

      11:05am | 10/11/09

      You’re right. I have a few relatives over there and as an outsider the conflict of interest is staggering and extraordinary. It would be like having Allan Bond as PM of Australia.

      Mr Berlusconi owns everything, autostrade, media – giornali & televisione it is astonishing. But they think he is good for the country even though he is helping himself along the way.

      I do not fully understand the judiciary but if they have that much power why haven’t they sorted out “Naples”?

    • Andrew says:

      11:05am | 10/11/09

      The trouble with political jokes these days is that they usually get elected.  It’s not the fault of the system (democracy) it’s ultimately the voters who make the choices.  Sadly, Spin-doctoring and image management tend to get more votes than good public representation.

    • Pat says:

      03:39pm | 10/11/09

      Well said Andrew.
      I can think of a major example here in Oz which has been for nearly two years now the master of spin.
      Unfortunatley for him and his army of advisors it appears that as cracks start to appear so will his wagon wheels start to come off their axels..

    • Steeve says:

      06:07pm | 10/11/09

      An excellent insight into current Italian politics here , Bravo!

      And Andrew,  the current master of spin isnt even a patch on the prince of lies and deceit that came before him. I’d rather spin that complete BS!

    • Emma says:

      06:50pm | 10/11/09

      Some valid points, but it does tend to assume that the whole of the Italian population are voting for and supporting Berlusconi, which isn’t true. I’ve lived here for two years now, and most of the people I’ve discussed the issue with tend to be either very anti-Berlusconi or claim to have voted for him purely due to lack of a credible alternative. The whole political system here is a mess. The man IS corrupt and out for his own interests, and don’t let the buffoon act fool you, he’s far from an idiot. It’s not a case of him being hounded and victimised by the media and/or judiciary, but the roots of corruption here go far deeper than the top layer of government. The majority of Italians are decent people who deserve better than they get from their robbing, stealing, swindling politicians, but there is a percentage who are worryingly right wing, and some of the borderline fascist policies and remarks that come out of Berlusconi’s government from time to time actually pander to these voters. Politics here is a joke, but a painful and shameful one for a lot of Italians.

    • Mick says:

      10:09pm | 10/11/09

      sadly, in a democracy the people get the government they deserve. if you have a majority of morons voting you will get a moron government, how do you think KRudd got into power???

    • Isabella says:

      07:51am | 15/11/10

      I’m Italian, I found this page and I began reading (and please forgive me my mistakes in grammar). I feel deep ashamed every single time I see that men on television, and not only because he represent our country even if he’s NOT a politician, but, as you said, a businessman: mostly because he is the real evidence of the Italian crisis. Economical, cultural, political, this situation of discomfort is everywhere around me, and most Italians are scared and determined to ignore it: Berlusconi took these worries and threw them in the bin, saying “We are Italians, we are the best, no matter what we can do”.
      Easy to follow his words, to trust him, because he has the same attitude as one of your friend, and he knows that. Berlusconi is not stupid: he’s arrogant, he’s definitely not a politician and he’s got a terrible sense of foreign public relations, but he’s not stupid.
      Italy is a mess, everything is corrupted and for who decides to open the eyes and face the music, the scenery is awful.


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