Probably not the last Berlusconi story

Some political figures exert a fascination out of all proportion to their historical importance. One of them is Silvio Berlusconi, the 77-year-old convict who was three times prime minister of Italy.

Not that Berlusconi is a historically unimportant figure. On the contrary, he has played a major role in Italy’s transition out of its anomalous Cold War-era political system. But the media attention he receives (and of which I am as guilty as anyone) is much more a function of his outsize personality and scandalous private life than of anything he’s achieved in the political arena.

The most recent chapter in the Berlusconi saga, however, is more strictly political than most. The split in the Italian centre-right between him and his former colleagues has become official, with the announcement by deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano – formerly Berlusconi’s right-hand man – that he will form a new political party.

Berlusconi will lead Forza Italia, a reincarnation of the party he led at the time of his first prime ministership, all those years ago in 1994.

Berlusconi has expressed the hope that the two centre-right parties will co-operate, and in the medium term that’s a likely outcome. But since Forza Italia is fundamentally just a personal vehicle for Berlusconi, it’s unlikely that it will long survive his political career.

That career, it would appear, is almost over. Convicted of tax fraud (not his only conviction, but the only one so far to have made it through the appeals process), he faces expulsion from the Senate, disqualification and a term of community service. His attempt last month to bring down the Letta government, which ended in ignominious failure, was his last chance to avoid that fate.

The difference between Alfano’s group and Forza Italia, then, is no deep matter of philosophical orientation, but rather the simple question of whether or not it was worth creating political chaos in Italy to save the skin of one prominent offender. In other words, whether the centre-right should have an independent existence rather than being just “the Berlusconi party”.

Alfano said it should, and on that issue the two men parted ways.

In his heyday, Berlusconi brought Italy, for the first time, a functioning two-party system. At the 2006 election, the two opposing coalitions garnered 99.5% of the vote between them – a remarkable achievement. But it was a precarious achievement, because the main pillar of the centre-right, Forza Italia (later People of Liberty), was a Berlusconi party, not a live political creature.

Berlusconi was a polarising force. That’s probably what a two-party system needs at some point, but it meant that Italy’s centrist or liberal forces, heirs to a distinguished tradition, had difficulty finding a place. Forced to declare themselves as pro- or anti-Berlusconi, some went one way and some another, but in each case they were marginalised.

Instead, the third force in the Italian parliament today is the populist party headed by comedian Beppe Grillo, the 5-Star Movement. I’ve previously suggested that it may implode à la One Nation; if it does, Alfano’s party and Letta’s Democratic Party may reoccupy the field between them. Or there may be an opportunity for a liberal party to establish a permanent place in the centre.

Either way, Italy now has the chance to have a normal party system, where competing parties start from a real social or ideological base. At one stage of his career, Berlusconi hastened that development: more recently he has retarded it. If he is lucky – and in the past Berlusconi has had a lot of luck – history will remember him more for the first than the second.

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