ROME — Berlusconi’s world has never been at such odds with Berlusconi himself.
Nobody could rightly agree with the decision to pull out of the coalition that was providing stability for the Italian government as the country attempts to pull out of a deep recession. You could count on one hand the number of loyalists so loyal that they cheered Silvio Berlusconi in the current role of Samson, set to tear the temple down with everyone inside.
It’s true that many have been puzzled in the past by some of the former prime minister’s choices. But incomprehension was never a barrier to knee-jerk loyalty which is indeed driven by sincere feelings of affection and gratitude, echoing the punchline from comic Maurizio: “I don’t understand, but I’ll adapt.”
But something is different this time, as Berlusconi asks his followers and political allies to stand with him after he pulled out of the coalition to protest his loss of parliamentary immunity in the face of a tax fraud conviction. Never before has Berlusconi risked being abandoned. By how many, nobody knows, but in the map of his world, there isn’t a continent where dissent with the latest decision isn’t the majority.
Let’s begin with his family. His children certainly love their father. But because of that love, they have tried every which way to dissuade him. There have been rumors that his eldest daughter, Marina, eventually gave Berlusconi her blessing, but it came with hard advice about the dangers of the choice he made. Marina herself is a businesswoman, who heads the family's Fininvest holding company, and knows what disastrous effects a new governmental crisis could have on the economy. The same goes for her brother, Piersilvio, who runs the largest part of the family business, Mediaset, whose fortunes are tied up in advertising — the first sector to suffer in a time of instability.
It is well known that Berlusconi's long-time friend and business confidante, Fedele Confalonieri, has begged Silvio to think of the businesses and to move forward in politics as shrewd entrepreneurs have always done without exposing themselves. All those in the Berlusconi business empire are looking forward to a time when they won’t be targeted on television or by prosecutors, and cannot wait to be able to exchange information without the constant suspicion of being an accomplice. In short, Mediaset is convinced that Berlusconi’s exit from politics can only be a good thing.
The fourth Berlusconian realm — after his family, Mediaset and the AC Milan soccer team — is his political party: the PDL, or Forza Italia, as it has (again) rebranded itself. Of all of Silvio’s worlds, the party should be more in tune with his political choices, for obvious reasons. Yet, they’re not. Today, the PDL-Forza Italia party can be divided into three camps of feelings.
Like Mussolini in 1943?
The first are those who are strongly tempted to abandon ship and have already made it clear. Sergio Pizzolante, party leader in Parliament's labor committee, said Sunday, “I consider the decision to reopen the governmental crisis wrong and serious. It puts the PDL in a place of complete isolation on both a national and international level.”
Secondly, there are those who disagree and yet won’t desert. “I will always, until the end, be with Silvio,” a parliament member told La Stampa. “But, I must say that, with sorrow, Berlusconi is ill advised by people with no political vision and who act only based on personal interests.”
Finally, speaking of the devil, are the four musketeers: Denis Verdini, Daniela Santanche, Daniele Capezzone and Sandro Bondi. They have long gotten their way because the PDL-Forza Italia party has never been run with any kind of internal democracy, but only on the basis of one person’s wishes. And they know how to play Berlusconi like a fiddle.
Now back to the initial question: Will Berlusconi be able to maintain party unity this time? He might, as this man of miracles has done so many times before. But we should also remember that every story has a beginning and an end, and this may well be the end of the militancy around a cult of personality that has dominated Italian politics since 1994.
Within the party, everyone thinks that the decision to bring down the government is a disaster, not just for the rest of the country, but for Berlusconi himself. “He is haunted by the fear of ending up in prison,” says a member of parliament. “In group meetings he seems absent, like he’s not even listening. And then every 15 minutes, he stirs and says: ‘yes, that’s all fine but if they arrest me, what would the party do?’”
“It’s an obsession,” says the parliamentarian who wants to remain anonymous, “because can you imagine how many judges wouldn’t want to be the one who put Il Cavaliere behind bars?”
Fear is reasonable — this exorcism is not. “It is one thing to end up in prison while you are responsibly helping the country emerge from a crisis," says one ally. "Another thing is if the entire country considers you irresponsible when you worsen the mire it’s in economically by bringing down the government.”
On July 25, 1943, there was a no-confidence vote in the Italian government that pushed Benito Mussolini out of power. Many had thought that devotion to Mussolini would override the country’s interests. There were men who didn’t hesitate risking their lives for him — today it's hard to imagine anyone even risking a seat in Parliament. Perhaps the time has come for many to finally say “No,” as painful as that might be. Some will speak of betrayal. Others, of dignity and independence.