The National, Thursday 10th November 2011
By Mary Gabriel
THE chairs were filled for the mid-afternoon card game outside my local coffee bar but inside, it was clear Tuesday was not a normal day.
Instead of the usual televised soap opera, the woman behind the bar had turned to a news channel where a much bigger drama was playing out. Each greeting from a new customer was followed by a glance at the screen and the seemingly vague question “what’s happening?”
But she knew what they meant. What’s happening with Berlusconi?
Between commentary from Roman and Milanese media and politicians, who all agreed the prime minister’s days in office were numbered, Silvio Berlusconi’s weary face flashed on the screen. His usual bluster gone, he seemed unimaginably powerless. Italians have grown used to seeing him in tight spots, but never like this.
Those watching no doubt did so with mixed emotions. He has so dominated Italian politics that it is impossible to imagine government without him.
He was less a prime minister than an emperor, a figurehead with larger-than-life appetites who ruled paternalistically over a people he was convinced loved him. And why should he think otherwise?
He was repeatedly returned to
office despite numerous corruption charges, rumoured links to the
Mafia, accusations of influence buying, and scandalous – not to mention embarrassing – charges involving his personal life.
And in a way, Italians did love him. One intellectual famously said of his fellow countrymen earlier this year during the height of the “Rubygate” sex revelations, “There is a little Berlusconi in us all.”
This might help explain Italians’ patience with Berlusconi. That, and the fact that he, unlike many Western politicians, campaigned with the implicit promise that he and his government would leave Italian citizens alone if they left him to govern as he pleased. It was a deal Italians could live with because the alternative, an interventionist central government, was unthinkable for many.
Sometimes, from my home far from Rome on the Adriatic coast, it seems to me that Italy has not changed since it was formally born as a nation in the 19th century.
The units of government still start with the family. That remains the most important entity in an Italian’s life. It is the base of all social relations, and in rural areas it is also usually the source of employment: Young men and women traditionally follow their fathers and mothers into the family business.
Official government plays a part in Italian life through local government, or the commune, but these too are in many respects an extension of the family.
Commune bureaucrats know the local citizenry because they grew up together. They know all the family histories. Problems and
concerns are handled with a mix of professionalism and intimacy.
There is no such thing as a faceless bureaucrat at this level in the Italian provinces. This familiarity is one of the reasons Italian life, for all its apparent chaos, works so well.
For more than a decade, Berlusconi has been Italy, and Italy has been Berlusconi. – Reuters