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Not Silvio Mubarak

14 November 2011 By Hugo Dixon

It’s easy to see why some Italians want to draw comparisons between Silvio Berlusconi’s fall and that of Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. Italy’s ex-prime minister was a friend of the dead Libyan leader; and he notoriously told police that “Ruby”, a Moroccan dancer with whom he’s alleged to have had underage sex, was the ousted Egyptian leader’s niece. But what just happened in Italy wasn’t its own version of an Arab Spring.

Berlusconi certainly distorted democracy. He didn’t have much respect for the rule of law; he misused his media empire to further his political ambitions; and he helped institute an electoral system which effectively gives party bosses the power to appoint members of parliament. But there are no torture chambers in Rome.

What’s more, it wasn’t a Tahrir Square-like wave of public pressure that brought Berlusconi down. Pressure from bondholders and the European Central Bank were the decisive factors, albeit that this frightened Italian citizens and was so transmitted to the body politic. But for the past 17 years, many Italians backed him at the ballot box – electing him three times. The fact that he wasn’t too bothered about ethics didn’t worry them as they weren’t sticklers about following rules either. Tax evasion, for example, is rampant in Italy.

Berlusconi’s downfall gives Italy a great chance to renew itself. The pressing economic tasks are a wealth tax, privatisation and reform of Italy’s unsustainable “baby pensions”. But if it relies on bondholders and eurocrats to provide discipline from abroad, progress will limited. The people really need to take responsibility for their own government and actions. In the early 1990s, after the so-called Bribesville scandal which discredited many of the old political parties, Italy had the opportunity to clean itself up. But the people flunked it by electing Berlusconi. It would be a crying shame to throw away their new chance.


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