(Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
It is in Italy that politics was first transformed by TV, then by the internet, and the March 4 elections will pit the incarnation of TV populism against the incarnation of internet populism: Silvio Berlusconi against the Five Star Movement.
Former prime minister Matteo Renzi is also campaigning. Renzi did an excellent job in power from 2014 to 2016, pulling Italy’s economy from the brink of crisis and, to a significant extent, restoring the country’s battered reputation abroad. But his Democratic Party is at a mere 23% in the polls – Five Star is at 28%; Berlusconi’s coalition – with the hard right, regionalist Northern League and nationalist Brothers of Italy as junior partners – is in the lead at 35%.
After their brief flirtation with his approach of pragmatic, reformist centrism, Italians now show Renzi much the same contempt that Brits show his inspiration Tony Blair. Italy has gone further down the road of populism than any other Western country and Renzi is the polar opposite of a populist – pragmatic and focussed on sensible economic management.
Loud 2016-style populism first upended Italian politics in December 1993, when the media and construction tycoon Berlusconi launched a new party, Forza Italia (‘Go Italy’). Four months later, the man nicknamed Il Cavaliere (‘the Knight’) had become prime minister – riding to electoral victory with lavish promises (“one million more jobs!”) broadcasted in a blitzkrieg of campaign ads on his three TV networks.
In the 1994 elections Berlusconi also showcased his gift for that all-important art in Italy’s chaotic politics: cobbling together the most unlikely of coalitions. In the north, he aligned Forza Italia with the Northern League. In the centre and south of the country, Berlusconi allied with the post-fascist, anti-regionalist National Alliance. These two Forza Italia allies hated each other, but the tycoon managed to hold the alliance together to stay in power for eight months.
Berlusconi swept back to power in the 2001 elections. Again, he got there through grandiose promises aggressively promoted through his TV empire. This time it was the “Contract with Italians”, flagrantly copying Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America”. He vowed not to stand for re-election if he didn’t fulfil four of its five promises, including his perennial guarantee of mass job creation. Il Cavaliere only fulfilled one – raising pensions. He responded with cries of “fake news!” avant la lettre – as he owned vast swathes of TV media, he focussed on the press.
He stood anyway, in 2006. This time, he lost.
Berlusconi consistently referred to Romani Prodi’s centre-left coalition, The Union, as “the Soviet Union” throughout its one year tenure (like Trump calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”). When the Prodi administration collapsed due to The Union’s internal contradictions in 2008, the old tycoon pounced. The Italian economy was in the doldrums, and Berlusconi poured forth promises about how he would restore it to growth.
The economy promptly sank into crisis. Il Cavaliere’s protracted failure to deal with ballooning public debt and lagging productivity had made Italy particularly vulnerable to economic crisis, and after the crisis struck he did nothing about it. That’s why, in 2011, as the southern half of the eurozone teetered on the edge of debt-fuelled implosion, Berlusconi was forced to resign from office. The look on Angela Merkel’s face as she stood waiting for him in front of the cameras before a meeting as he continued his brash jabbering away on the phone said it all. As he left the presidential palace after handing in his resignation, a crowd threw coins at his convoy and shouted “buffoon”, “dictator” and “Mafioso”.
But now, despite this egregious CV, despite well-publicised sex scandals, and despite a conviction for tax fraud barring him from actually taking office, polls suggest Berlusconi’s coalition will become the largest group in parliament on March 4. Self-parody works for him. Seventeen years on from his first electoral resurrection, Il Cavaliere sat down on the same stage, on the same trashy TV programme on the same station of his that he used to announce the “Contract with Italy”. He then offered a “contract with the Italian people”, the centrepiece of which is … “one million more jobs!”
On the face of it, the disruptive innovation of the Five Star Movement’s populism 2.0 should sweep away Berlusconi’s autoplagiarising 1990s TV populism. Founded by the “comedian” (he’s not very funny) and blogger Beppe Grillo in 2009 on the back of his “fuck off day” rallies, this is a “movement” (its adherents refuse to define it is a party because they oppose the very idea of political parties) based around the internet – party members vote on policies and elect leaders with the click of a mouse. The overarching theme is an anti-politician, anti-politics, ‘plague on all their houses’ rage. Five Star’s positions defy the left-right spectrum – for example, it is at once keenly environmentalist but archly Europhobic. It also holds dear the belief that vaccines cause autism.
Thus Five Star have outstripped Berlusconi in terms of populism and kookiness. They have also outstripped his incompetence. The skeletal, diseased Christmas tree that drooped in front of the Piazza Venizia in Rome is a powerful symbol of Virginia Raggi’s unparalleled capacity for mismanagement as the first Five Star mayor of the capital.
In this context, the insurgents have given Berlusconi the advantage of novelty. They have allowed him to present himself for the first time in his career as experienced, measured, moderate: “The challenge is between moderates like us and the rebellious, poverty-perpetuating vigilante movement like Grillo’s followers,” he told Corriere della Serra.
Many Italians recognise that Berlusconi is a disreputable charlatan, but they also see that it’s all relative.
Even if the tycoon’s alliance doesn’t come out on top, Italy’s complex electoral system makes it nigh on impossible for any of the current coalition groupings to form a majority. Five Star might renege on its promise to stay out of the inevitable post-election backroom machinations, but the anti-politics “movement” could hardly sell that pitch to its supporters. Berlusconi, meanwhile, will be in his element in the scramble to form a governing coalition. In Italy’s debased politics, the old 1990s TV populist trumps the internet upstarts.