It was through a narrow and discrete door that Italy’s longest serving PM, Silvio Berlusconi, left the presidential palace late Saturday night to the chants of “hallelujah!” from protestors that had gathered to celebrate his resignation. After a high profile career that has controversially shaped Italy’s political landscape, the self styled “Il cavaliere” (the Knight) may have hung up his armour – yet his legacy leaves behind a nation that is edging closer to the precipice, amidst crippling debts and a society that has lost faith in its political class.
Heralded as an “outsider”, the self-made media tycoon was considered by many Italians in the early 1990s as a credible alternative to what may saw as a corrupt, clientelist and uninspiring political system. Casting himself as a moderniser and reformer who would bring about an “economic miracle” – Berlusconi’s legacy could not have been any further from the truth.
Reaction to the news of Berlusconi’s resignation.
Statistically, Italian debt currently stands at €1.9 trillion, at 120% of its annual GDP (the third most indebted nation in the “developed” world); with lending rates dangerously touching the 7% mark, a level at which lending is seen as unsustainable, and where a bail-out – in the image of Greece, Ireland and Portugal – may eventually become a reality. In the decade leading to 2010, only Haiti and Zimbabwe were ranked as having lower growth, with Italian GDP per head actually regressing. As well as this, Italy’s ageing population is a cause for concern in the context of growth forecasts, more than a quarter of young people are unemployed – a figure that rises to 40% in the south. Moreover, low productivity rates and high wages took haven taken their toll on competitiveness and job creation: whereas productivity rose by a fifth in the US and a tenth in Britain in the last ten years, Italy saw its production rate fall by 5%. It comes as no surprise that Italy is ranked 80th in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” index, below Belarus and Mongolia, and currently stands in 48th place in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings, behind Indonesia and Barbados.
Earlier this month, amidst market volatility, Berlusconi’s government performance over the Eurozone crisis came under close scrutiny from the IMF and European counterparts at the G20 summit in Cannes. Whilst many economists believed that Italy’s position was “markedly worse” than Spain, the IMF and European Union promptly dispatched observers and audit officers to Rome – a humiliating step for Europe’s third largest economy. In response, and to the stupefaction of many Italians, Berlusconi stated that life in Italy was that of a “wealthy country, it’s hard to find seats on planes, and our restaurants are full of people”.
Despite Berlusconi’s initial efforts to shrug off such procedure as a mere audit at a time of difficulty, IMF boss, Christine Lagarde, summarised the gravity of the situation as “identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners, as a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced.” Or in other words, the lack of credibility in both Mr Berlusconi and his capability to deliver necessary measures.
Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy answering questions on Berlusconi.
With 51 votes of confidence in his government since 2008 and four ongoing trials – Berlusconi’s credibility, or lack of it, was not confined to the economy. For Andrea Mammone, the media-mogul’s “mediaitsation” of politics eventually became a “one-man-show centered on the increasingly-absurd figure of Berlusconi”. The high profile “bunga-bunga” sex scandals, along with police investigations into allegations of fraud, to the increasingly hard-line proposals to stop wiretapping, changes in juvenile prostitution laws, – projected the image of a “banana republic” in which a modern democracy could be run as a personal business entity. The promotion of showgirls and actresses into parliament, government and even as party candidates in regional elections, cultivated the macho and openly sexist portrayal of Berlusconi, whom in April 2011 joked “When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said, ‘Yes’, while the other 70% replied, ‘What, again?’.”
It’s unsurprising to say that over the years, Berlusconi lost credibility both at home and abroad. Yet in the end it wasn’t his relationship with juvenile prostitutes, his eccentrics, allegations of corruption, nor his prolific contempt for the judiciary and the judges that were after him. In the end, the man who promised that he would deliver a “new economic miracle” – was finally brought down to earth by his failure to make the Italian economy grow.