Grab your Jacob Zuma voodoo doll and give it a big hug. Our wily president is many things, but he is not Silvio Berlusconi, the preposterous billionaire ex-Italian Prime Minister who had been convicted to a year in prison for tax fraud while still on trial for paying an underage prostitute for sex. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Before we go into the story, let’s run through the numbers, because they will provide the contextual basis for the appropriate amount of rage. Italy, once a G8 powerhouse and now a formidable grouping of Portugal, Italy/Ireland, Greece and Spain (Pigs), is nearly €2-trillion in debt, or 126.1% of GDP, the second biggest debt load in Europe after Greece. This year, the economy shrank 2.4%; next year, it will shrink between 0.2% and 0.7%. Following Silvio Berlusconi’s humiliating ousting last November, a €20-billion austerity program was instituted by his unelected technocrat successor, ex-Goldman Sachs hack and former European commissioner, Premier Mario Monti. This is Italy’s fourth recession since 2001. And counting.
That’s Berlusconi’s legacy, and we haven’t even touched on the role of organized crime in everything from garbage collection to construction, and the sclerotic guilds that all but squeeze the young out of employment opportunity. Italian unemployment is, by the way, at just above 12%, a full 4% higher than in the United States, a digit for which President Obama is currently on the re-election grill. Such an utter hash has been made of Italy that one really does need to cast around for a villain. And perhaps that villain should be the man who has been its dominant political figure for the past two decades, spending three disastrous terms in the top job.
Berlusconi is often described as “colourful.” In fact, he’s a scumbag crook. Political office has never been anything other than a means for graft, and an excellent way to stay out of jail. (Italian Prime Ministers don’t go to jail – it’s the law, and a bad law.) Take his current contretemps with the Italian courts. Berlusconi started his career as a vacuum cleaner salesman and a cruise ship singer. He parlayed that formidable experience into building a media empire that includes Mediasat, the company that basically controls Italy’s airwaves, a repository of dross so god-awful they make TV in the rest of the world look like the inside of the Louvre.
Milan Judge Edoardo D’Avossa told a packed courtroom last week that “a very significant amount of tax evasion" occurred, and there was “an incredible mechanism of fraud" in place when Berlusconi was buying and selling broadcast rights between 2001 and 2003, while he was Prime Minister of Italy. In other words, Italy’s premier was screwing the country he was bankrupting with bad policy (remember, Italy didn’t enjoy the boom years the same way the rest of us did, because it was undergoing four consecutive recessions) out of taxes it desperately needed. How’s that for “colourful?” Berlusconi, the ruling insisted, showed a “natural capacity for crime.” Which is the understatement of the young century.
Indeed, Silvio has been found guilty of tax evasion of three previous occasions, but beat back the convictions on appeal. He will have a chance to appeal the current conviction twice, which means it will be a long time before he sees the inside of a jail cell. Anyway, his conviction is a significantly reduced, handed down as it with an amnesty in place during this, a time of severe overcrowding in Italian prisons.
Is Italy starting to sound like a place you’d be scared to take a holiday, just in case any of this dysfunction is contagious? I thought so. But it doesn’t stop there. Berlusconi’s phalanx of lawyers lambasted the ruling, calling it “totally divorced from all judicial logic.” Berlusconi himself has said the ruling is “political and intolerable”, and has lamented Italy’s slide into barbarism and tyranny. Should the conviction be upheld, he would be barred from holding office for five years.
Although he has promised not to throw his name in the hat for the coming elections, due next year, Berlusconi still pulls the puppet strings at his centre-right People of Liberty (PDL) party. His minions have called the ruling “judicial persecution”, and the party’s chief whip, Fabrizio Chicchito, has said, "This is not a sentence, but an attempt at political homicide."
Speaking of political homicide, Monti, charged with getting Italy’s house in order and instituting a crushing austerity program that seems designed to stagnate the economy for the foreseeable future, is backed by the PDL, the biggest in parliament, along with the Democracy Party. (Monti doesn’t belong to a party, won’t run for election and isn’t a politician, but will still likely be reinserted as Premier. Which really means that Italy isn’t a democracy.) Berlusconi, perhaps in a move to divert attention from his legal woes, has warned Monti that the PDL may remove its backing because current policies are deepening the recession the PDL created. Should they do this, the government will fall, and early elections would be called. Just about the only thing Italy has going for it is a measure of stable governance, which is to say that there hasn’t been an election every three weeks. Lenders and rating agencies will be manifestly unkind.
“It’s impossible to say what is in Berlusconi’s head now, but if he decides to end his support to Monti, early elections become almost inevitable,” Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of politics at Rome’s LUISS University, recently told Bloomberg News. “Berlusconi would lose the elections anyway, but would likely get more votes thanks to an anti-austerity platform and that would increase his party’s bargaining power in the next parliament.”
Mama mia, what a cesspit. Oh, but wait, I forget the post-meal grappa. Berlusconi is still on trial in a case the Italian media have crapply called “Rubygate”, referring to the underage prostitute the ex-pres is said to have paid for sex while he was Prime Minister of Italy. Italy’s disastrous situation makes African countries look like bastions of good governance. And yet the Western press assiduously publishes chin-scratching articles as if the joint isn’t a total banana republic effectively led by a crook soft-pornographer with a bad facelift. Why?
Because Italy is full of white people. Which means it’s important. Somebody ought to put the Pigs on a spit and give it a thorough roasting. DM
Photo: Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wipes his face during a news conference at Villa Gernetto in Gerno near Milan October 27, 2012. Berlusconi appeared to have done an about-face on Saturday, vowing to stay in front-line Italian politics after a Milan court sentenced him to four years in jail for tax fraud related to his media empire. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo