A victory for threats, media muscle and patronage
by Bill Emmott
You have to admit the man has talent. Silvio Berlusconi's triumph in Italy's general election, to win a third spell as prime minister - at the age of 71 and less than two years after his defeated five-year government had left Italy as the slowest growing economy of western Europe - is quite remarkable. It is testimony to his resilience but also to a campaign full of jokes and provocations. His victory should, however, be deeply troubling for anyone who cares about democracy.
For in addition to his undoubted personal appeal, Berlusconi had some powerful advantages. He is Italy's richest man by far, enjoying a near monopoly of commercial television, a big publishing empire, and lots of other interests. Such a domination of the broadcast media by a party leader would be considered an unacceptable infringement of democracy in any other west European country. In fact, if Italy were a candidate for EU membership, such concentration of power would be an obstacle. Since it was a founder member in 1957, neither governments nor the European commission dare raise this issue.
As an opposition candidate, ownership of all the commercial TV channels, bar the weak La7 channel and the cooperatively rightwing Sky Italia, helped Berlusconi enormously. In government his advantage is even greater, for he can, did and will exploit Italy's tradition of political interference in the Rai public broadcasting system. An important reason why he lost so narrowly in 2006, despite his government being widely considered a failure, is that he essentially controlled the entire TV news output. During the campaign such fears cannot have been absent from the minds of every Rai political reporter and commentator who wants to stay in a job.
I should disclose at this point that there is history between me and Berlusconi. In 2001, when I was editor of the Economist and another Italian election was imminent, we conducted a long investigation into his finances and his many legal entanglements. As a result of that investigation, and aware of his conflict of interest as a media owner, we declared him on our cover to be "unfit to govern Italy". Half of Italy vilified the Economist for that cover and the other half beatified us. The still victorious Berlusconi branded us "communist", correctly pointed out my resemblance to Lenin, and presented us with the first of two libel suits, which are still rumbling their way through the Italian courts.
The notoriety that this brought was good fun. But behind it lay some serious issues. Berlusconi's defenders say that there is plenty of competition in the Italian media, so his TV ownership doesn't matter. Of course it does, for TV is far more powerful than print, but Berlusconi also uses a mixture of lawsuits, patronage and threats to intimidate Italian journalists.
His defenders argue, moreover, that he has never been found guilty of any legal charges. This is blatantly untrue, but he has been saved by the statute of limitations and by the way his own government in 2001-06 shortened those limits and decriminalised the false accounting with which he was charged. Berlusconi should be a cautionary tale for us all about what happens when you allow one man to dominate the media, and when the interests of big business and of government become intertwined.
But what will happen now? Berlusconi has won a more decisive victory than most pundits expected, and will govern in a coalition with the Northern League, an anti-immigrant and regional-rights party that was the election's other big winner. His government can be expected to last rather longer than its weak centre-left predecessor. The party representation in Italy's parliament has been simplified drastically thanks to this election, which is surely a good thing. But with no communist or socialist representatives - for the first time since 1946 - there is some danger that extra-parliamentary activism will break out in response to the new government's programme.
Italy does have law courts and a president to act as constitutional checks on the government, so there is some hope of restraint - even though during the campaign Berlusconi proposed menacingly that all prosecutors and judges should be given sanity tests. His government is likely to be corporatist rather than free market, at least on the evidence of a campaign in which he promised to block the sale of the near-bankrupt Alitalia to Air France-KLM. That intervention and any new state aid will bring him into conflict with the European commission; and a likely increase in Italy's budget deficit - thanks to his promised tax cuts and spending rises - will bring him into conflict with other member governments.
In which case, the important thing is that they stand up to him. Neither Gordon Brown nor any other European leader should repeat the disgraceful toadying to Berlusconi that was exhibited by Tony Blair, which showed that this supposed idealist had no principles at all. They will have to treat the Italian prime minister with the diplomatic politeness that is due any head of an EU government, but should go no further than that. Brown's holidays would be far better spent in Dorset than Sardinia.