Lessons and reflections on Rome

Just some few days ago, the Italian political capital, Rome, once again became capital of world for those obsessed or even merely interested in world politics. The occasion, for the very few that may have missed it, was the fall of the Silvio Berlusconi government. Like him or loath him, any observer will admit that Silvio Berlusconi has dominated the Italian political scene and become a house hold name in Europe and by extension world politics in the last seventeen years.

Berlusconi got into politics and quickly into power as a reformer, a simplifier that came to get Italy working. He is probably the most famous Italian leader after Benito Mussolini. Politically, Berlusconi was born when he founded FI, (Forza Italia) in December 1993 and barely three months later led it to a national electoral victory in a breathtaking election within an acrobatic coalition called Polo delle Libertà.

The billionaire businessman came into power boasting of his track record as an achiever capable of making pragmatic decisions, creating jobs and making Italy fly again. He promised a new Italian miracle. His political life in government that came to an end yesterday was however far from the promise with which he started. Berlusconi became known more for his exuberances, gaffes, scandals and suspected corruption rather than reform, GDP growth or job creation. To his ever growing ranks of critics, many of his utterances and attitude became less and less compatible with democracy and his capacity to deliver good governance turned more and more unbankable.

Technically, his government had to fall after losing its majority in the house, the now clearly weakened Berlusconi had himself promised to resign as soon as he had pushed the package of cuts and stimulus measures through parliament. Those measures were demanded by the European Union and the market that wanted a strong government capable of dealing with Italy’s 1.9 trillion Euro debt. The weakened Berlusconi could clearly not deliver and he had to go. This calls for some reflection, but first let us look at the symbolic and graphic mode with which Berlusconi left office.

Berlusconi, the showman that loved the crowds and great entrances was forced to leave the presidential residence through a side entrance, hounded by chants of “buffoon, buffoon” from thousands of jeering demonstrators singing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. He is reported to have told his aides: “This is something that deeply saddens me.” A sad end indeed but it could have been worse and therein lies an important lesson for other leaders in the rest of the world for just like in the neighboring Mediterranean but non EU countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya where there are no mechanisms in place to accommodate and manage peaceful changes the unwanted leader might have to be killed and above all many citizens lost their lives in order to see a change of government.

Sadly, it is human to want to cling to power but these examples teach us that wisdom dictates that anyone in power needs to put in place and protect mechanisms that will allow peaceful change and exit out of power and where that is lacking the only alternative is violence. Violence that might consume the lives of not only citizens, but also the lives of those rulers that have refused to allow peaceful change happen.

Other points that need to be reflected upon are the active factors that led to the fall of Berlusconi’s government and the replacement being hastily planned. The weakness and unpopularity of his government was not sudden and though the oppositions have consistently pointed out and complained about Berlusconi’s abuse of his private media power and undue influence on the public media, the fact remains that he was always democratically elected by Italians because he was always able to cobble together more votes than the other side. Even when the voters were not totally satisfied with his performance, there was no credible alternative solution to him and his coalition. The available alternative provided by the left and centre-left in all its possible shades was weak, confused and divided.

In normal circumstances and in a western democracy, it is the opposition that brings down a government and after that one of two things happens. Either the ruling coalition presents another candidate to the parliament or head of state as prime minister or the opposition through elections presents a new candidate as prime minister. In this Italian case, the opposition was not capable of bringing down the government, the market did it. In this Italian case, neither the opposition nor the ruling coalition seems capable of producing a new prime minister. The stage seems to be set for the entrance of a market friendly technocrat and to save time and reassure the market we are told there will be no elections immediately. This might be efficient and appealing to all those that have had enough of Berlusconi, (and there are many of them both in and beyond Italy) but any true democrat must ask him or herself if it is right for the market to have so much power in a democracy? Beyond this Berlusconi affair, can we reasonably trust the markets to take care of our institutional needs?

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