Debate: Did Berlusconi save Italian politics, or ruin them?

Proposition: You can’t expect perfection from the chaotic world of Italian politics

With the various sex scandals (that are basically a footnote at this point in his tenure as prime minister), the economic problems of Italy, the corruption allegations and his own claims of spending €200 million on legal costs over the past twenty years, the dramatic fall of Silvio Berlusconi has obscured the good that Silvio Berlusconi has done for his country.

It’s impossible to present Berlusconi as the perfect politician, because he’s not. But he offered, through most his political career, an ability to hold together a political structure that was splitting at the seams. As Prodi’s government showed in 2008, the alternative option in Italy was not always the greatest. His government barely lasted two years before another election had to be called and Berlusconi returned for his third stint as Prime Minister. There is a reason that Berlusconi has won three of the last five elections – it’s because the alternatives in Italy are awful.

Berlusconi’s impact on politics itself has been understated, but rather important. He has helped kick start Italian party politics since he entered the political fray with centre-right Forza Italia. Italian politics had basically been a series of disappointing centrist coalitions one after another. The presence of Berlusconi has helped stimulate a plurality of political opinions in mainstream Italian politics. The resulting mainstream bipolarity has been good for Italy’s political sphere. There’s no reason to assume any other leader but Berlusconi could have stimulated such a response from the Italian political classes.

Moreover, he has brought in from the doldrums of Italian politics the more extreme parties, like former fascists and been able to de-radicalise them. By achieving this Berlusconi has helped reduce the risk of any extremism in Italian politics. His ability to, safely, bring former radicals and fascists has been a great achievement and a testament to Berlusconi’s power and his ability to hold together a country with such a difficult and cumbersome political framework. Italian politics is a safer place because of Berlusconi’s ability to bring in extremists into his coalition and de-radicalise them.

Berlusconi cannot be heralded a great leader in the way Britons herald Winston Churchill or Americans view Lincoln, but he was the best Italy had at the time. He was able to help Italian politics and hold governments together in a way that his opposition was not. He was best of a bad bunch.

-Saket Kumar

Rebuttal: Good riddance to the sleazeball who has almost ruined a nation

Let’s leave aside the fact that Berlusconi is a sleazeball pervert, or that he was more likely to engage in a Viagra hunt than in ensuring Italy’s fiscal strength.

Instead let’s start by showing that far from “holding together a political structure that was splitting at the seams,” Berlusconi has further gutted the already weak institutions of the Italian state – to such an extent that claiming Prodi’s 2008 government was worse is bemusing.

Not only did the closed-list electoral system brought in by Silvio break links between voters and representatives, compounding Italy’s corrupt political culture, but more important, Berlusconi outrageously abused his office in attempting to steamroll over an independent judiciary. This was achieved, at best, through the exertion of significant pressure to affect judicial decisions and crushing judicial esteem through constant demonisation, and at worst by actively changing the law simply to impede due process.

This can be seen not least through the changes Berlusconi made to Statute of Limitations laws in an attempt to kill the hand prosecutors and the judiciary had against him and his allies, regarding their numerous murky dealings.

Being Italy’s richest man shouldn’t necessarily exclude you from political office; being an insidious multibillionaire who enters politics to consolidate their personal interests at the expense of the spirit of the law should. It’s hard to consider a leader’s legacy good when their self-serving relations with the mafia were probably better than those with the other branches of government.

And whilst Saket is right that Berlusconi has brought fascists into mainstream politics, he is wrong to view this positively. These fringe groups maintain their thuggery but also now have the power to enact their perversions: simply look at the abominable treatment of immigrants and gypsies.

All this is topped off by an incompetence that took Italy from the relative economic safety beleaguered technocrats had ensured (a primary budget surplus) to the current brink of economic and geo-political meltdown.

Ultimately, Saket misses not just the picture but also the point. Yes, some alternatives for Italy would have been worse than Berlusconi, but not all. This simply means that some would have been even worse – not that Berlusconi’s rule has therefore been good. As we’ve seen, the reality is far from it.

An insidious disaster, let’s hope this truly was the last political incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi.

-Anirudh Mathur

PHOTO/Presidenza della Repubblica