Berlusconi Is a Sleazebucket, But Maybe You Should Be Glad He’s Back
Surprise! The “Bunga-bunga” man, known for scandal, corruption and sex parties, is back. He slunk away from office in disgrace in 2011, but the 76-year-old former prime minister and media tycoon, currently affianced to a 27-year-old shop assistant, got almost enough votes on Monday in a four-way race to put him back in charge of the country. And even though he lost by a tiny margin (0.4 percent) to rival Pier Luigi Bersani, Berlusconi also has enough support in the Senate to deny his opponent the majority required to easily set up a new government.
Berlusconi ran a populist campaign, as did Beppe Grillo, a former television comic whose 5 Star Movement channeled voter disgust with the ruling political class. Both candidates sent messages of undoing tax increases and pension cuts put in place by incumbent prime minister Mario Monti, a former Goldman Sachs banker. Monti has become the unpopular face of the technocratic elite in Italy and is disliked for his support of austerity policies.
For all his revolting shortcomings, Berlusconi’s got one thing going for him: He’s a foe of the German-led austerity policies that have caused widespread suffering and economic catastrophe for much of the eurozone. Last Saturday he said, “I contradicted the lords of austerity who are now trying to get rid of me.” He accused Monti of being "subservient and always on his knees in front of Mrs. Merkel" (the German chancellor). In contrast, Berlusconi said he would give Merkel “a run for her money.” The Italians liked the sound of that.
The situation in Italy is now essentially political gridlock, which could potentially lead to yet another election in a few months. It is disturbing, to say the least, that we might have to be relieved at the resurrection of a man who is currently a defendant in not one but two trials for tax fraud and for having sex with an underage prostitute. And yet in the circus of Italian politics, it looks like that’s just where we are. The left isn’t powerful enough to take him on, and so it’s either Berlusconi or somebody more closely aligned with financial predators. Some choice!
What happened in Italy opens a new chapter in Europe’s politics. Voters clearly rejected austerity and Berlusconi is already holding up his middle finger to the banks, suggesting, as reported in the Guardian, that the German government and the European Central Bank joined forces to increase the cost of Italian borrowing in 2011 so as to push him out and usher in their favorite, Mr. Monti.
World markets are freaking out over the Italian elections, and everybody is wondering if the anti-austerity fever will spread to Spain and beyond.
European elites may just have to rethink the bank-friendly strategy that has forced ordinary people to pay for the financial crisis they did not create. Elites in the U.S. bent on focusing on deficit reduction rather than addressing the real crisis, unemployment, might want to take note, too.