Silvio Berlusconi – Italy’s longest serving head of government since the Mussolini era – stepped down in November amid a welter of court cases, allegations about his personal life and the ramifications of the Eurozone crisis. Claudia Baldoli, senior lecturer in European history at Newcastle University, looks at the parallels between downfalls of the two most high profile Italian political leaders of the last century.
At the beginning of November 2011, news of a financial storm in Italy broke in the Italian media. The country’s association of industrialists sent an alarming message: Italy would experience the same crisis as Greece unless the situation was tackled seriously within a very few days. Investors abandoned Italian bonds, and the Milan stock exchange lost 5% of its value, closing finally down 3.78 % after the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano promised an immediate solution to the political instability. The Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, accused by both the opposition and the foreign press of having taken no measures to resolve the economic crisis, announced his resignation. Napolitano anticipated the possible transition to a government of national responsibility led by experts, which would take the country out of the financial crisis.
The owner of a media empire and of AC Milan football club, Berlusconi first came to power in 1994, after the Christian-Democratic system had collapsed in a wave of corruption scandals. Opposing the austere programme of the centre-left, Forza Italia’s optimistic propaganda posters smothered the walls of Italian cities, depicting blue skies and the smiling image of this self-made entrepreneur who promised ‘one million jobs’ and the abolition of taxes. A coalition with the Northern League and the former fascists from the National Alliance kept him in power (despite some interruptions) for almost 17 years, until the coalition finally lost its majority in November 2011, weakened by both internal discontent and the economic crisis. On 12 November Berlusconi resigned.
Mass demonstrations accompanied his exit from power: thousands of people gathered outside Parliament and the presidential palace, shouting ‘Resignation’, ‘Bye-Bye Silvio’, ‘Game over’, ‘Go to jail’, ‘Get out you robber’, ‘Mafia out’. Banners carried the words: ‘12 November: liberation day’; strings and brass accompanied the chorus of Handel’s Hallelujah. Both the national anthem and the partisan song Bella Ciao were sung, amidst a sea of tricolour flags. The celebrations continued until late at night, like the aftermath of a world cup victory.
Infuriated by the popular response, one of Berlusconi’s MPs (a former fascist) commented that the scenes could be compared with those of April 1945, when crowds of Italians met at piazzale Loreto in Milan to celebrate Mussolini’s fall, gathering around his corpse which had been hung upside down by the partisans. ‘What a shame’, she said, ‘they were all anti-fascists after piazzale Loreto … and they’re all anti-Berlusconi after his resignation today’.
Although the conflict of 1943-45, so rancorous that some regard is as Italy’s civil war, is hardly comparable to the economic crisis of 2011, in both cases leaders who had held power for years met their demise surrounded by cheering crowds. However, as historian Sergio Luzzatto has shown in the case of the fall of Mussolini, the people who gathered in the piazzale Loreto were not necessarily the same crowds that had assembled to listen to the Duce’s speeches in the city squares of Italy for the previous 20 years. And even more than during the Fascist age, Italian society has been deeply divided throughout the Berlusconi years. The looming economic disaster and the mounting pressure from his European partners, which crucially prompted the government’s fall in November 2011, was only the final act in a longer political crisis.
Opposition to Berlusconi had existed within sections of Italian society all through his time in power. In 2010-11 it finally erupted into mass criticism of his government, evident in the outcome of the May 2011 local elections, when the government coalition lost 23 major Italian cities to the centre-left, including Milan and Naples. This was followed by defeat in the June 2011 referendum on the privatisation of water supply, the building of nuclear plants in Italy, and a new justice law to protect Berlusconi from trial. The referendum result represented a popular verdict against the government, but it followed from previous initiatives prompted by citizens’ associations all over the country.
One of them was the ‘No Berlusconi Day’ of December 2009, which saw huge demonstrations calling for Berlusconi’s resignation. The initiative was sparked by the government’s attempt to pass a law that protected the Prime Minister from trial. Among the magistrates’ accusations against Berlusconi were links with the Mafia, corruption and false financial returns from his companies. According to an enquiry made by La Repubblica in November 2009, 19 laws were promulgated during his period in office which brought beneficial effects both for Berlusconi himself and for his business affairs. However, initiative by the judicial authorities was only one of his problems. Berlusconi’s control of the media (90% of Italian television, according to The Economist in 2001) and his attacks on the press (which resulted in Italy being classified among the ‘partly free’ nations according to the Freedom of the Press 20004 Global Survey) meant that in the eyes of international organisations and the foreign press, Italy could not be considered a full democracy.
The next blow to the Prime Minister’s reputation came when magistrates began to investigate allegations of providing women with jobs (often in politics) in exchange for sexual favours. As with the judicial system, it was civil society that reacted to the scandal. In February 2011, women’s organisations declared an anti-Berlusconi women’s day under the title ‘If not now, when?’ The event brought at least one million Italians onto the streets in protest. The organisers declared that they were reacting against the government’s representation of women as sex objects; they sought to reclaim the dignity of women as workers and social actors, who toiled hard in times of economic recession and did not exchange their bodies for jobs.
As these events unfolded and Italian youth unemployment reached 27.9%, the majority coalition began to crumble. The leader of National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, whose party had merged itself with Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà in 2008, abandoned the government at the end of 2010. Since then, Berlusconi could only count on a handful of votes in order to maintain his majority. The financial crisis of 2011 gave the final blow to a system that had been in crisis for about two years. Just as Italians in piazzale Loreto were not necessarily those who had previously acclaimed Mussolini in piazzale Venezia, it is likely that those who celebrated on 12 November 2011 were not Berlusconi supporters who had abandoned him at the eleventh hour, but Italians who had been impatiently awaiting this moment for years.