LONDON – Abraham Lincoln was right: You can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. Unfortunately, his dictum is irrelevant to modern Italian politics.
In a democratic country with a number of different parties, like Italy, you only have to fool about one-third of the people all the time to get and keep political power.
Silvio Berlusconi is making a comeback bid. Only eight months after the disgraced politician left the prime minister’s office by the back entrance to avoid the jeers of hostile crowds (they sang “Hallelujah” instead when they heard he was gone), he is talking about a return to politics before the elections next spring.
And he could actually win.
Even six weeks ago this seemed preposterous. “Berlusconi is so dead he doesn’t even wear his makeup any more,” said comedian Beppo Grillo, and the various trials that Berlusconi faced for bribery, fraud, tax evasion, and paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl were taking up most of his time. But if he is a political zombie, he is one with lots of luck and plenty of money.
In February the bribery case, in which Berlusconi was accused of paying British lawyer David Mills to lie under oath in corruption trials in 1997 and 1998, ran out of time under the statute of limitations. (Mills was convicted of accepting the bribe and sentenced to 4½ years in jail, but his sentence was canceled on final appeal because of the same statute of limitations.) And who shortened the time available to complete a prosecution? Why, Prime Minister Berlusconi, that’s who.
Indeed, some people argue that Berlusconi first went into politics in 1994 to avoid conviction in various criminal cases. He changed the law on accountancy to escape conviction for false accounting, and so far his changes to the statute of limitations have let him escape separate prosecutions for corruption, embezzlement and tax fraud. His most recent escape was last week, when a judge dismissed more tax-fraud charges against him because of the same statute of limitations.
That left only one set of charges relating to financial matters and the case alleging that he paid for sex with a minor at one of his famed “bunga bunga” parties.
But she denies it happened, and also denies that his gifts to her of jewelry and money worth $300,000 had anything to do with that denial. So the 75-year-old billionaire is confident that his legal problems are under control. He would be even safer, though, if he were back in office and able to rewrite the laws whenever necessary; besides, he misses the limelight. So, he has started talking about a political comeback — and the circumstances are looking quite promising for him.
He was forced out of office last November because other European leaders were fed up with his embarrassing antics (at European Union summits they were going to comical lengths to avoid being photographed with him), and because the financial markets had lost all confidence in his government. His main tactic in politics has always been to bribe the voters with their own money, and the Italian economy was going down the drain.
Berlusconi was pushed out, and the nonpolitical technocrat who became prime minister in his place, Mario Monti, was given the task of reining in spending and avoiding a default on Italy’s huge debts. At first Monti enjoyed 80 percent support in opinion polls, but as his spending cuts and tax rises began to bite his popularity sank. Besides, he has promised not to run in next year’s election anyway.
Berlusconi’s party, People of Freedom, has fallen on hard times politically during his absence. By mid-June, however, the polls were saying that if he took back the leadership, it would win 33 percent of the votes in an election.
“We are all asking him to run and I believe that in the end he will decide to lead the party,” said Angelo Alfano, the current leader of the People of Freedom party, last week. Indeed, many people believe that Berlusconi chose the colorless and unpopular Alfano as his successor precisely because it would make a comeback easier.
Berlusconi is still being coy about his plans, but he is talking like a candidate. If he were in power, he hints, he would reverse Monti’s tax rises and revive the lavish spending pattern of his previous administrations. That would cause Italy to crash out of the euro, the common European currency. His answer to that: Italy should go back to the lira anyway.
Italy has the third-largest economy in the eurozone, so that could bring the whole currency crashing down, but what does that matter so long as Berlusconi is doing well?
The man is a scoundrel, but a charming and very clever one, and that is something that Italians cannot help admiring. You can’t fool all the Italians all the time, but you can clearly fool a third of them forever.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.