Old dirt on a new broom: In Berlusconi's democracy, they do in Rome what the Romans have always done, says Paul Ginsborg

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The Independent Online
THE battle that has raged in recent weeks between the government of Silvio Berlusconi and its critics, principally the Milanese magistrates of the 'Clean Hands' anti-corruption team, is not just about tax evasion or the alleged illegal activities of the Prime Minister's brother. It is, rather, a crucial episode in a larger dispute about the nature of Italian democracy.

To understand why this is so, we must go back to the foundation of the Italian Republic in 1947. The Republic began life as a determined attempt to break with previous Italian political culture, both fascist and 'liberal'. The country's constitution, highly democratic and socially conscious, reflects in many ways the spirit of the Resistance against the Nazis-Fascists between 1943 and 1945. The autonomy granted to the judiciary in the post-war period, for example, was a totally new feature in the history of the Italian state.

However, old vices rapidly overlaid new virtues, and the institutional formalities of the post-war settlement were submerged by the political realities of 40 years' rule by the Christian Democrats and their allies. The old political culture proved far more vibrant than the new, especially in the key areas of clientelism, of corruption, of nepotism and of the Mafia.

Patron-client relations, so long-lasting a feature of Mediterranean political anthropology, found their modern form in the distribution of state resources to the politically faithful. Kickbacks and other forms of corruption were a natural corollary. So too were the politics of parentela, the seeking of favours for one's relations, regardless of the laws. When Naples was preparing for the World Cup in 1990, Paolo Cirino Pomicino, former city boss and Christian Democrat finance minister, now accused of widespread corruption, allegedly told his collaborators that he was not interested in bribes but only that the order books of his brother's company were well filled.

Last but not least, the Mafia, far from being stamped out in the new Republic, reached a comfortable modus vivendi with local and national politicians and flourished, almost undisturbed.

These were the dominant features of Italian political culture for more than 40 years. They were not the only ones, because Italian democracy was not merely fictitious and there was a formidable opposition in the shape of the Italian Communist Party. Within the Italian state virtuous minorities continued to survive and to fight for different values. From time to time the historian can hear their voices - isolated, courageous, almost always destined to defeat - emerging above the babble of everyday politics.

In 1992, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the beginning of the 'Clean Hands' campaign and the flight of voters from the Christian Democrats and Socialists towards new parties, the balance between majorities and minorities in Italian public life, between formal rules and day-to-day reality, changed dramatically. A new political space opened up, and senior magistrates like Francesco Saverio Borrelli, the chief prosecutor in Milan, and Gian Franco Caselli, his courageous counterpart in Palermo, seized the initiative.

There followed an extraordinary period, an attempt to enforce the law and to restore Italian democracy to the heights of its constitution. An unprecedented war was waged against the Mafia, against corruption, against the old political elites. In the course of one year, 1993, the five ruling parties of the post-war period were wiped off the political map. Rarely, if ever, except in conditions of war, revolution, or national calamity, can the appearance of a country's politics have changed so suddenly and so dramatically.

Yet it was only the appearance. The magistrates' offensive never became a mass movement. The politics of the palaces of justice never became the politics of everyday life. The main opposition party, the PDS (the ex-Communists), seemed too worried about possible skeletons in its own cupboards to try to extend the 'Clean Hands' campaign into every part of Italian society. There was no cultural revolution, such as had shaken Italy in 1968-69.

Public opinion was on the side of the magistrates - the most energetic and charismatic of Borrelli's team in Milan, Antonio Di Pietro, was (and is) the most popular man in Italy - but 'Clean Hands' remained largely a spectator sport. Ordinary Italians were never forced to ask uncomfortable questions about their own behaviour, about how the dominant political culture of clientelism, nepotism, tax evasion, and so on, was their own.

In the elections of March this year, Silvio Berlusconi saw all this very clearly and stepped ably and swiftly into the political space opened up by the magistrates' actions. He appealed to the vast reservoir of centre-right votes, he played hard on the opposition's ineffectiveness and its Communist past, he was not afraid to make wide-ranging electoral pacts, with the neo-fascists and the Northern League. The result was more than 20 per cent of the vote for his Forza Italia movement and a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies for his 'Pole of Freedom and Good Government'.

Berlusconi himself, however, stands both for the very new in Italian politics, and for the very old as well. A long-standing friend of former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, he came up through the old system and shares its values.

He views the world through the eyes of the patron-client and familial relations. Like Paolo Cirino Pomicino, he has his brother to look after, and members of his clan to reward with top goverment jobs. He has stubbornly refused to separate effectively his private interests from his new public duties, or even to admit that there could be a glaring conflict between the two. As for the murky world of the Mafia, while it would be quite wrong to say that Berlusconi has chosen it, there is much evidence from Sicily to show that it chose him.

However, Berlusconi is not just old wine remarketed in a new sleek bottle. He represents a novel vision of Italian democracy, and one that could have considerable resonance in the rest of Europe. As his oldest friend and closest collaborator, Fedele Confalonieiri, has admitted: 'As a democratic politician Berlusconi is a distinct anomaly. He would be more at ease as an enlightened monarch'.

In Berlusconi's new-look Italian democracy, the formal rules, above all the right to vote, would remain intact, but very many aspects of both state and society would be dominated by a powerful presidential figure, his companies and his advisers. Some commentators have called Berlusconi's triumph the coming of videocracy. It is more than that. The mass media are crucial, but the benign and constant presence of the President will be felt in all areas of consumption and leisure - in the supermarkets, in the football stadiums, in culture and in fashion.

The homo ridens, as the satirists call him, does not want to abolish democracy, but to change its contents and its balances. His is a formidable project for hegemony.

All this is very different from the past. It bears little resemblance to Mussolini's Blackshirt thugs and castor oil, and not much to the history of the Republic. The networks of the Christian Democrats ware based more on parishes than on publicity, and they had a habit of getting rid of their over-powerful leaders - as De Gasperi, Fanfani and De Mita all found to their cost. It was only Craxi, a Socialist and Berlusconi's one-time protector, who wanted to become a powerful president of the Republic; in this, Berlusconi has assumed his mantle.

Despite the mistakes of the past few weeks, Berlusconi should not be written off. His impetuousness has certainly cost him dear, both at home and abroad, but he is a man able to learn from his mistakes.

The magistrates are aware they are fighting a rearguard action. They may discover major illegalities in Berlusconi's empire and issue charges directly against him, but as all the business world knows, Fininvest's secrets are buried deep. Even Di Pietro's stubborn, computerised searching may not uncover them.

The longer term problem is that the magistrates may well share the fate of the virtuous minorities of the past, for their action is perforce limited to being punitive, not creative. They cannot reinvent Italian democracy or convince Italians to reject Berlusconi's view of the future. That task belongs to a political opposition which still seems shell-shocked.

For the moment, it seems likely that a majority of Italians will embrace Berlusconi's vision, a subtle brand of the old and the new, consumerist and conventional, sporting and nationalist, charismatic and populist.

The writer is professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Florence and author of 'A History of Contemporary Italy', Penguin, 1990.

(Photograph omitted)