Silvio Berlusconi: The laughing Cavalier

Posing as a simple grafter, living in luxury, the impervious Italian Premier is all things to all men
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The Independent Online

While the marriage of Tessa Jowell and David Mills was heading towards a separation last week, the Prime Minister of Italy was addressing a joint session of Congress in Washington DC. The standing ovation began before Silvio Berlusconi had even opened his mouth.

This man, whose alleged dealings with Mr Mills has given the Blair government a nasty wobble and helped trigger the couple's parting, is a figure the outside world finds it hard to take seriously. Maybe it is time we started.

In his eulogy, President George Bush said Mr Berlusconi, campaigning for re-election next month, had brought Italy stability. He was not wrong. The man they call Il Cavaliere has ruled Italy since June 2001. In the six years before that, four prime ministers took their turn at the helm.

The improbable Mr Berlusconi seems to have hit on a cure for Italy's persistent post-war malaise of weak, fleeting, wrangling coalitions. And although he is behind in the polls, he has been gaining ground on the centre-left for months. Few people in Italy would be surprised - though many would be horrified - if he were to win the general election next month.

But if he does, it will be a far more stunning success than that of 2001. Back then, he was relatively untried; he could plausibly present himself as the man of the future, a businessman of astonishing prowess and achievement who could wave his magic wand over the Italian economy and let the good times roll. He was the incarnation of a certain kind of national hope - vulgar, greedy, selfish, certainly, but hope all the same.

Five years on, Italy has the weakest economy in western Europe. The dream of a new economic miracle lies in tatters. Why on earth would anyone vote for this 69-year-old again, this busted flush? He has enriched himself, he has sapped the strength of the state broadcaster RAI, the only rival to his Mediaset company, and changed the rules to allow himself even greater media domination, and these measures have enabled his empire to grow vigorously. But what has he done for the country? Yet it is easy to find working people ready to bore your socks off with tales of Il Cavaliere's self-sacrifice, his devotion to the job, his genius. Making the most of his ownership of three television channels, Mr Berlusconi has taken advantage of Italy's weakness for simply drawn, boldly assertive heroes. He has also exploited the widespread boredom and disillusionment with politics as usually practised. You have to have politics, he suggests, but instead of an intellectual or a technocrat talking incomprehensible cant let us have a simple man just like you, ambitious, energetic, determined but normal, prone to making off-colour jokes and naff remarks, with a sex drive and a weakness for plunging necklines and a touching belief in his own unlikely sexual charisma.

A man like you, but one who has entered a world of dreams where you can own the nation's best football team, huge yachts, villas dotting the world, every conceivable luxury. And yet who is at heart so simply moral, so good, that instead of lotus-eating he continues to work like a dog on the citizens' behalf.

This is the narrative Mr Berlusconi spun at the election of 2001 in a book, An Italian Life, distributed to homes all over the country and has been spinning ever since. Any mere mortal who compared himself with Jesus Christ and Napoleon would be carted away. When he does, it is good old Silvio, at it again, knocking the self-important bores out of the headlines, making the cuckold sign behind the heads of colleagues in group photographs, comparing that rude German MEP with a concentration camp kapo: Silvio, a human in a world of monsters.

"If something is not on television it doesn't exist!" he once said to a colleague. "Not a product, or a politician, or an idea." Italians watch more television than any other Europeans, and the diet of "le rêve, le rire, le risque" as French media mogul Bernard Tapie used to put it, is as relentless as ever. It is all Mr Berlusconi's handiwork - the state channels merely mimic his programming - and it offers the perfect showcase for him, retailing uncritically his bare-faced lies, his claim, for example, to have accomplished all the goals of his administration, to have done more in five years than all other Italian governments did in 50.

"To Mr Berlusconi," writes Alexander Stille, author of a book on the man, "what matters is not what happened but what people think happened." In a survey of women voters in 2001, 75 per cent of those who watched four or more hours of television per day voted for Mr Berlusconi, 35 per cent more than those who watched two hours or less.

But we run the risk of claiming he has mesmerised his nation, robbed them of their wits and turned them into a nation of Forza Italia automatons. True, if they vote him in again, image will have played a large part, but so will reality.

Mr Berlusconi's most impressive achievement in five years is to have entrenched the rule of anti-law. The common man in Italy is up against a state that is ferociously, mindlessly bureaucratic and bizarrely incompetent. Any routine task is beset with a forest of rules and obligations, and yet it takes only guile and know-how (and connections) to get things done informally without the state being any the wiser.

A real reforming government would set as its urgent priority modernising the way the state operates so it was more responsive to the citizens' needs and more efficient. It would do the same with the appalling justice system, designed by a malevolent surrealist.

Mr Berlusconi has always been on the side of the artful dodgers, dedicated to making the life of the tax evader, the mafioso and other criminals less stressful and more profitable. One of his first legislative acts was to decriminalise false accounting. He made money laundering harder to trace. He offered amnesties to tax dodgers and illegal builders. He relentlessly insulted the judiciary, and helped defendants move their trials to other cities if they proved the judge was biased against them.

One of his most recent acts was to slash the length of white-collar trials, so thousands of people accused of such crimes, himself foremost, woulddodge justice. Despite all the hoopla last week, it is highly unlikely that either Mr Berlusconi or David Mills will ever be found either guilty or not guilty of the crimes of which they are accused. Those will simply be "extinguished".

Mr Berlusconi has achieved a sort of revolution. His critics blame him for enacting laws to his own advantage, but this has not damaged him electorally because millions of ordinary Italians are equally gleeful at seeing the state become more cumbersome, more indulgent, less vigilant, less capable of fulfilling its duties. If re-elected, he promises to bring his "reform" of the justice system to a conclusion, its total emasculation.