Economist Tips Italian Election

If you are an American voter, it’s probably hard to imagine caring one way or another what the foreign press is writing about your election. True, there was a touch of public hand-wringing last fall after the Florida fiasco—OK, maybe half a dozen New York intellectuals wrung their hands—when the world’s press roundly denounced the American electoral system. (See this “Foreigners” and this “International Papers” column for the world’s reaction to the election mess.) But most of the time, foreign views of the American political process matter as much to most Americans as, say, European Cup soccer matters to most American football fans.

But that isn’t the case everywhere, and particularly not, it turns out, in Italy. Yesterday, the Italians effectively voted to make Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who may be the richest man in Italy, the next Italian prime minister. They chose Berlusconi and his right-wing party Forza Italia despite an unprecedented level of criticism of Berlusconi in the rest of the European press. In fact, it seems they may have chosen him partly because of this criticism.

The attacks came from all sides of the political spectrum and touched on a wide range of issues. They included criticism of Berlusconi’s murky financial dealings; allegations that he has been allied to the Mafia; fears about his dominant position in the Italian media, much of which he owns; and attacks on his parliamentary allies, who include the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance. Libération, a left-wing French newspaper, put Berlusconi on its front page in a Mussolini-like pose, with the headline “He is dangerous” in Italian. Anti-Berlusconi editorials appeared in other French (Le Monde), German (Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Spanish (El Mundo) papers too. Perhaps most damning of all, the conservative British Economist magazine, which has oracular status in Italy, published a three-page essay listing all the judicial investigations into Berlusconi’s financial affairs, and declared that his election would “mark a dark day for Italian democracy and the rule of law.” It is the sort of language that has hitherto been reserved for Austria’s Jörg Haider and his not-unsympathetic-to-the-Nazis Freedom Party. (For more on the international reaction to Berlusconi’s candidacy, see this International Papers.)

Initially, Berlusconi’s chief opponent, the former mayor of Rome Francesco Rutelli (head of the left-wing Olive Tree coalition), took heart from all this and was even quoted by the New York Times calling the foreign press campaign the “real turning point” of the race. How wrong he was. Support for Berlusconi went up by 2 percent in the wake of the Economist article. The campaign also garnered the unexpected support of Giovanni Agnelli, head of Fiat and possibly the most famous Italian businessman of all, who criticized the foreign press for “addressing our electorate as if it were the electorate of a banana republic.” Others followed suit. The press campaign may even have shaken the normally unshakeable commitment that most Italians feel for a united Europe. “For the first time,” one Italian columnist told me, “we started to think, ‘maybe not everything that comes from the North is good, maybe not everything written in English is better.’ “

All of which says something interesting about how much Italy has changed over the past decade—and how poorly the rest of us understand those changes. For years and years, everyone in Europe, including the Italians, fully agreed that the Italian political system was a basket case—the new government will be the 59th Italian government since the war—and that the Italian economy was a happy-go-lucky accident that had managed to succeed through some sort of inexplicable miracle.

In the early 1990s, however, Italy went through the wrenching drama of the Mani Pulite (“clean hands”) campaign, during which (for those who don’t remember it) corruption investigations led to the downfall of virtually the entire Italian political class. For Italy, it was every bit as big a watershed as the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was in Eastern Europe (to which it was not unrelated, but that is another story). The constitution was changed, politicians were jailed, whole political parties vanished overnight. Unfortunately, the heavy state bureaucracy and jumbled tax system were left in place. Berlusconi is promising (albeit with only the barest hint of detail) to do away with both. The Italian willingness to vote for him is one sign of how deep the desire for reform must be.

For if anyone is a man of the old system, it is Berlusconi, whose vast business and media empire was almost certainly founded on political connections. But Italians know that better than anyone—and those who voted for him, at least, appear to have forgiven him for it. They point out that he has been a part of the Italian political landscape for some years now (he was, briefly, prime minister once already), and that he has been accepted by other politicians, both Italian and foreign. They don’t necessarily think that his past will prevent Berlusconi from being the reformer they want so badly. Nor do they really blame him for it, arguing that anyone who succeeded in business in the past had to have corrupt political links: “Everybody did it.” When, suddenly, a “bunch of foreign newspapers started repeating what we know already,” as one Italian put it to me, they felt there was something almost racist about it, as if the pro-Berlusconi Italians were too thick to have heard about the dirty details themselves.

Rightly or wrongly, at least a part of the voting public has now recovered from the trauma of Mani Pulite and wants to forgive, forget, and move on. Nor does it want to hear what other Europeans think about that. Italy, in other words, no longer thinks of itself as a joke country—the land of pizza, pasta, and the Mafia—even if the outside world still does.