TURIN - Perhaps we deserve Berlusconi and his lies. Not the Italians, maybe, given as a single citizen is largely powerless in the face of a political system. But the media, especially the television, definitely does deserve him.
A brief explanation is required: For the last three weeks, every time I turn on the television and see Berlusconi, invariably he insists that he, truly, has always kept his promises. He reads the clauses from his “Contract with the Italians” from 2001 and he reels off a flurry of “facts.” He reads his electoral manifesto from 2008 and again, he praises himself for respecting all the commitments that he's made.
It doesn’t surprise me, because we’re used to the man. But as for the presenters of the television programs, where are their brains when they hear such statements? Do they really believe that we’re looking at free expression of opinions and assessment? Have they never seen a TV debate or talk show from other countries? Do they not know that in a normal European country, like Germany, the UK or France, a politician could never ever blatantly lie about the facts because the show's host would immediately call him out on it, and the following day the press would shred him to pieces?
Let me be clear, I am not referring to secondary commitments here, or to vague and general promises from politicians, “we’ll reform this, we’ll change that, we’ll make that a priority,” and so on. No, I am referring to a precise and important thing, a task that Berlusconi repeatedly and solemnly promised as the centerpiece of his center-right agenda but was not done: the abolishment of the IRAP regional small-business tax, and the reduction of the maximum personal income tax rate to 33%. It was, and still is, essential to businesses and households; it has been promised by Berlusconi dozens of times -- but nothing has been done.
How is it possible that nobody who interviews him, when they hear that he kept all of his promises, bursts into laughter? Why don’t they feel the duty to remind him of these hard facts? How do you go on with the questions if the interviewee can deny the evidence? But above all: do you just not see that the past and future are intricately connected, that he cannot be credible about the future if he can’t admit the truth about the past? When great political leaders ask the electorate to vote for them a second time, they usually get elected again because they communicate the message that there is more work to be done. Last year, that is what Barack Obama did, and what Tony Blair had done in his day. But Berlusconi?
Taking the dream with him
End of the outburst. I would like to make it clear that this doesn’t apply to some of the current proposals of his party, some of which I even find meaningful and valuable. My utter exhaustion for Berlusconi’s chatter, my impatience with the media who submit to him, indeed derive from the “free market revolution” that has been promised so many times but never fulfilled. It’s still one of the few good ideas in circulation but, unfortunately, no major political force embodies it today. In short, I think the real criticism of Berlusconi shouldn’t be that he doesn’t have ideas, but that he has betrayed them -- or better still, betrayed the very core of his political program.
That’s why, with the approaching elections, I’m more and more puzzled. I’m among those who think it’s time to say goodbye once and for all to the politics of Berlusconi Berlusconismo, if only because the feeling of continuously being taken for a ride is extremely unpleasant. The mere presence of Berlusconi on the political scene is enough to poison the atmosphere; and he makes the left seem more absurd than it would be otherwise.
At the same time, however, I think that the departure of Berlusconi, and it will be soon, is being driven by a series of false beliefs. The belief, for example, that removing Berlusconi would remove Italy’s problems, or the belief that the technical government of Mario Monti should have been stopped a long time ago. Above all, what worries me is the belief that Italy’s ailment stems from the same political area, and that the enormous expansion of government spending and the debt are a product of progressive policies. A belief that if the power shifts to the left, the problems will all be solved.
No, I do not think that it will be like that. Unfortunately, when he leaves the scene, Berlusconi may end up taking with him the entire culture of the right that -- albeit timidly -- really gave the image of a liberal revolution with a less intrusive state that finally turned the Italians from subjects into citizens.
There was a time, recently, when it seemed that the idea might have some chance, and that the crisis could herald the birth of, if not a convinced free-market political force, at least political culture with that inspiration. The forces and the people were there, but it lacked something concrete. The wires got crossed. So, today, the liberal-minded, free-market culture survives as a minority, just like the Christians in the catacombs, and has no chance of representation in Parliament.
We can only hope that those, like me, who think that these ideas absolutely cannot emerge, are wrong, and that hope can be be restored to a country that has lost the ability to long for something better.