Italy has a misogyny problem. It is the most unequal country in Western Europe in terms of gender discrimination. It has the lowest employment rate for women, along with the lowest annual salaries (17% less than their male counterparts). Most troublingly, in 2007, a man in Palermo was sent to jail for two days for murdering his wife, after his children told the courts his wife had ‘provoked’ him by disrespecting him. This is a major failing of the legal system towards, but unfortunately Italian culture remains biased towards men. It is this culture that Silvio Berlusconi has exploited for his own political gain.
In the Name of the Godfather
The former prime minister’s sexist behaviour has been front and centre of all his business and political dealings. His practice of nominating young women with little experience for political positions has been well-documented. In 2009, Berlusconi nominated a female star of a reality show, a former Miss Italy contestant, a soap-opera star, and a lingerie model. His television programs have objectified women for decades. This has spread to the international stage as well, with Berlusconi causing a furor over derogatory remarks about Angela Merkel and opposing female politicians.
On June 24 Berlusconi was convicted of soliciting underage prostitution and abusing his authority to cover up his crime. Judges also ruled that Berlusconi had forced the police to release the girl when she was caught stealing from her roommate. Berlusconi has received a sentence of 7 years, pending appeal, however it is unlikely that he will ever see the inside of a prison cell. Berlusconi is now 76 years old, and his age, combined with the length of the appeals process, will conspire to keep him out of prison.
Considering his judicial history, Berlusconi’s ability to avoid prison is remarkable. He has previously been convicted of perjury in 1990 and illegally financing a political party in 1997, though he was never sentenced for either offense. Amazingly, Berlusconi was involved in 19 trials in 1990. In 17 of the cases, Berlusconi was either found not guilty, or the statute of limitations on the charges expired. Charges have ranged from tax fraud, perjury, mafia collusion, corruption, bribery of officials and police, and underage prostitution.
With such a laundry list of charges, in addition to numerous gaffes and scandals, it is remarkable that Berlusconi remains as popular as he is. Italy’s political culture is tailor-made for Berlusconi. This is not the former prime minister’s first flirtation with the laws of consent. Berlusconi’s marriage ended in divorce in 2010 when he was alleged to have engaged in an affair with the then-17 year old Noemi Letizia. Berlusconi has personified the cultural viewpoint of many male Italians.
With his wealth and power, the former prime minister’s antics are viewed by the populace as a natural extension of the male psyche. Therefore his constant consorting with young women, at the expense of his wife and children, is not a character flaw but rather a natural part of life. His charm is that he appears to be an ordinary Italian, and has exploited the culture of chauvinism to fuel his extraordinary success.
And Injustice for All
Berlusconi has incredible influence over Italian civil society. He is the 7th richest Italian in the world, with a net worth of $6.2 billion. His news-media empire owns newspapers, the largest publishing house in Italy, a near monopoly on Italian television and the largest advertising agency in the country, Publitalia. Furthermore, Berlusconi owns AC Milan, one of the most successful, and popular, Italian soccer teams. Real estate holdings comprise the final section of his empire.
Berlusconi entered Italian politics mainly to protect his television monopoly from being broken up by the Italian court system. The political party he created, Forza Italia, was staffed by executives of Publitalia. It was designed to fuse Italian nationalism, plus connotations of soccer, to promote the wealthy Italian as a man of the people who would drive Italy forward. Once in office though Berlusconi’s agenda was incredibly self-serving. He granted himself partial immunity from prosecution for the duration of time in office. Anti-regulations were relaxed.
Berlusconi’s leadership was not a boon for Italy. The Italian economy has been contracting steadily since 2007. In 2010 the only countries with worse recession were Zimbabwe and Haiti. Going back even further, the Italian economy has not seen substantial growth (greater than 2%) in 20 years. The standard of living for many Italians is decreasing. Public infrastructure is crumbling. 1000 companies go bankrupt in Italy every day. Mediobanca has warned investors that Italy may even go bankrupt within six months.
The AC Milan chairman’s leadership was derided around the world. World leaders viewed Berlusconi more as a gaffe-prone fool than serious problem-solver. Despite all these failings, Silvio Berlusconi is the third-longest serving Prime Minister of Italy, serving three terms as Prime Minister. It was only the recent underage prostitution case that finally turned public opinion against the septuagenarian.
Italy does not have a rosy future ahead. And this is largely due to its willingness to indulge the behaviour of Silvio Berlusconi. It is unthinkable that any other democracy would tolerate such a plethora of legal problems and allow their leader to so brazenly manipulate the political structure of the country. Ordinary Italians may have viewed him as an entertaining minstrel, but the price for leadership heavy on placebos and light on substance is the long-term health of Italy. Silvio Berlusconi will go down in history, but it will not rate him highly.