I am an Italophile, I love the country (well, what I have seen of it), its people (passionate, generous, open), their food (needn’t have said that huh?), their language (who needs opera when you can hear Italian spoken?) but perhaps my greatest pleasure has been found in trying to comprehend and follow their completely baffling and endlessly entertaining political system and the scandals and controversies that constantly surround it.
There can be no need for ‘creative journalism’ within the offices of Roma’s equivalent of the National Enquirer . The sheer number of scandals, the vast variety of problems that these boys can get themselves into is astounding. To an outsider it seems as though at least one criminal conviction is the barest prerequisite for running for public office in Italy.
If there was a prize given for frequency and magnitude of scandals during a term in office, you’d think current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would have it all wrapped up. He’s an impressive guy with an impressive resume, having amassed a personal fortune that amounts to around $9 billion (making him the 74th richest person in the world). He also has an equally impressive list of allegations of improprieties (although no final convictions) made against him. A list that includes: bribery of judges, false accounting, embezzlement, tax evasion, drug trafficking, tax bribery, mafia collusion in a money laundering operation, corruption of senators, bribing a lawyer to influence a judicial decision and most recently “Rubygate” with its accusations of extortion and child prostitution. I told you it was a pretty impressive list. But hang on a sec, he’s not got this all sewn up, he has some stiff competition in the criminal activity stakes; with no fewer than 23 current Italian MPs, senators and European MPs who have final criminal convictions that are not obstructed by statutory terms. So many in fact, that Wikipedia has a dedicated page for them. These guys aren’t small-time petty criminals either, these blokes are the real deal. Their list of crimes is wide ranging and comprehensive and includes: aiding and abetting, tax fraud, bankruptcy fraud, illegal financing, slander and pollution of an acquifer (toxic waste dumping). One delightful chappy Mario Borghezio, (pictured), was convicted in 1991 for beating a Moroccan child and in 2005 for arson of the belongings of some immigrants sleeping under a bridge.
Unlike most western democracies where legal limitations exist to stipulate how many times a leader can run for the top job or how many terms an individual can serve in office, the Italians have no such hinderances. It appears to be a kind of trial and error gig. “If we don’t like the new guy we can always give the old guy his job back” kind of thing. Between re-elections and bargaining with one of the many parties that cover the political spectrum in order to form a coalition of the sometimes willing, Signore Berlusconi has had four separate cracks at the Prime Ministership between 1991 and today. One can only assume that until now, the Italian public have been relatively content with the job he’s been doing, after all Berlusconi wasn’t elected for his morals and Italy has weathered the global economic crisis better than many of its European neighbours – Portugal, Ireland and Greece, for example.
The world of Italian politics is rife with sordid tales and wicked deeds, intrigue, unseemly acts and incredible gaffes.
Berlusconi has (in no particular order) –
- made a vulgar gesture (the “corna”) behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister, Josep Piqué, intimating he was a cuckold during an official photo shoot.
- suggested to a German European MP that he (Berlusconi) knew “… a movie producer in Italy who is making a movie about Nazi concentration camps. I will recommend you for the role of a Kapo. You are perfect for the part!”
- defended accusations he made that the “Communists used to eat children”, by responding with claims that “… read the Black Book of Communism and you will discover that in the communist China of Mao, they did not eat children, but had them boiled to fertilise the fields”.
- been quoted as saying at an awards dinner in January 2007, “If I wasn’t already married, I would marry you right away,” and “With you, I’d go anywhere” to Mara Carfagna, a representative of Forza Italia and former showgirl.
- responded to a female journalist who asked him if a tenfold increase in patrolling soldiers would be enough to secure Italian women from being raped, by saying: “We could not field a big enough force to avoid this risk [of rape]. We would need as many soldiers as beautiful women and I don’t think that would be possible, because our women are so beautiful.”
- Two days after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, devastated the capital city of the Abruzzo region, causing more than 290 deaths, he said to n-tv that the people left homeless by the earthquake should view their experience as a “camping weekend”. On that same occasion he asked woman councillor Lia Beltrami, “Can I fondle you?” on a tour of the earthquake site.
- two days after Barack Obama was elected the first African-American US President, “complimented” Obama on his “suntan”.
As Spiegel Online (the online English version of German newspaper Der Spiegel) points out “Pious Christians regard him [Berlusconi] as sick but many ordinary Italians are cheering him on. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may grope his way from one scandal to the next, but issues of morality are not likely to cause his downfall. Should 74-year-olds be hosting group sex parties? Absolutely. And should they also be in charge of the government affairs of a core European Union country? Silvio Berlusconi would answer this question enthusiastically in the affirmative. “No one can convince me to change my lifestyle,” the Italian prime minister has said. “I’m proud of it.” For the full article click here.
When I first started having an interest in Italian politics this kind of stuff left me slack-jawed. Now I’m so accustomed to reading about it, it has become commonplace. The role of politics in Italian life is just one more unfathomable aspect of Italian culture joining driving habits, television programming and organizational skill; as things I will never understand. Put it down as one of the great unsolvable mysteries of life.
Recently Berlusconi had this to say to reporters about prosecutors in Milan who are seeking to bring him to a fast trial on charges arising from ‘Rubygate’ – “These practices are against the law, they go against parliament”. He said he would take legal action against the Italian state.
Can you think of another place in the world where a nation’s leader would threaten to sue their own people?
That’s Italy for you.