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Italy's sinister power struggle

The political crisis in Italy is deepening by the day, with Silvio Berlusconi arrogantly rejecting a damning verdict of the Constitutional Court and sinister forces around Gianfranco Fini waiting in the wings to take over should the government collapse.

Last week, the seemingly Teflon-immune Berlusconi appeared to suffer a major legal setback. The 15 judges of Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled by a nine to six majority that legislation forced through last year was in breach of the constitution. The law granted immunity to the top four officers of the state, including of course the prime minister himself.

His lawyer notoriously claimed that the prime minister should be “first above equals”. The reason? Berlusconi was on trial at the time – accused of bribing to the tune of £376,000 his former UK lawyer, David Mills (estranged husband of New Labour Cabinet Minister Tessa Jowell) to lie in court.

A second charge of corruption was for tax fraud and false accounting to acquire rights for Mediaset, his television company. Mediaset controls four Italian channels and has a majority stake in Spain’s Telecinco. It is valued at £5.1bn. Another court in Milan has also just ruled that Fininvest, Berlusconi’s media empire, must pay £690m in damages for bribing a judge to allow it to take over the Mondadori publishing house, currently valued at £871m.

Berlusconi, who has dominated Italian politics for 15 years, and is presently worth £6bn – the 70th richest man in the world, has struck back by accusing the Constitutional Court of being left wing. He presented himself as the underdog, persecuted by the left, and that to defend himself against wicked judges he has been forced to lash out £192m on “consultants and judges” – whoops, he meant to say lawyers, not judges.

This is a man who is rightly seen by many Italians and others as a “caudillo” or authoritarian strongman in the style of Mussolini and Franco. Eugenio Scalfari, editor of Repubblica newspaper, one of the few not under Berlusconi’s control, has described Berlusconi’s “super-ordained power of leader” as the stuff of dictatorship.

Although Berlusconi’s popularity has dropped dramatically in recent months, he remains buoyed by his majority in parliament, and above all the parlous nature of the centre-left opposition. Berlusconi’s government remains warmly supported by European Union leaders like Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and above all by former PM Tony Blair who holidayed with Berlusconi on two occasions, not to mention Russian ex-president Vladimir Putin.

But whatever the fate of Berlusconi, the real danger in Italy is likely to come from within his recently formed People of Freedom (Popolo della Liberta) party, especially from its co-founder Gianfranco Fini. He may well take advantage of the crisis to stage an internal coup inside Berlusconi’s alliance, by forming a grand coalition or an emergency government, involving businessmen and “elements of the left”.

Fini is a son of fascist parents, who was chosen to be the national secretary of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the direct successor to Mussolini’s party. He has stated that Mussolini was “the greatest leader of the 20th century”. Although Fini now poses as a new-born liberal and Berlusconi critic, the notion that he is a “former” fascist is nonsensical. For example, the Bossi-Fini law of 2002 which removed asylum rights and set the scene for some of the worst attacks on immigrants, gypsies and ethnic minorities in present-day western Europe.

Italy is presently in severe economic downturn. It has suffered a 6.3 per cent fall in gross domestic product , the second largest amongst the G7 industrialised nations, trailing only Japan. This combined with a constitutional crisis has serious political implications. A myopic obsession with the empty shell of parliamentarism could allow the really dangerous forces hiding behind Berlusconi to take the initiative.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
12 October 2009

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