The passengers travelling on the Eurostar Frecciarossa from Rome to Milan on the morning of the 29th of December were met upon their arrival at Stazione Centrale by a barricade of photographers, cameramen, and journalists. The latter were arranged in two rows, some standing and some kneeling to get a clean shot, their cameras and microphones pointed at the oncoming crowds which further gave them the appearance of a firing squad. The Polizia di Stato formed a protective ring around them, unapologetically waving away the curious and hurrying along tens of travellers who entertained hopes of transiting freely in a public space. At first it was not clear why the police were required and exactly who or what they were defending, but as the passengers were shepherded past the media, and I among them, we realized what was happening. Some whispered excitedly, others sighed and made sarcastic remarks. ‘A politician’, some explained. “Berlusconi”, cried others.
We were about to witness Silvio Berlusconi’s latest electoral stunt. It is likely that Berlusconi or someone from his entourage had warned the media that he would be taking the train from Rome to Milan that day, and suggested that perhaps an interview at the station might be in order. At any rate, thanks to this five minute affair, Berlusconi was portrayed once again to thousands if not millions of viewers via the idealizing medium that is television as a tireless champion of liberty, a citizen merely attempting to live a normal life. A man who is perfectly in tune with ‘the people’ for whom he readily forsakes private jets and helicopters, both generous and elusive as he stoically answers the questions put to him by the predatory journalists. The same journalists he regularly disparages for what he considers their infringement of his right to privacy, a man who never shirks the duties the nation has called him to perform; in short, a martyr of sorts. And in the process the artifice that went into the staging of the interview was hidden from the viewers at home, who would most likely have regarded the interview as the product of a fortuitous encounter between members of the media and Berlusconi or at any rate would simply have registered it as thoroughly unexceptional. What is more, all was carried out with the complicity of the policemen, the journalists, and crucially of the travellers – who lent the whole charade an air of casual fraternity – all of whom were reduced to the rather unforgiving role of scenery in what is by now a too familiar drama.
A couple of weeks earlier, on the 6th of December 2012, Berlusconi had announced he would be ‘taking to the pitch’ again, an expression he had originally coined in 1994 to mark his political debut, but which he clearly believes can serve him equally well today. In what is a strikingly original interpretation of Italy’s recent past, Berlusconi contends that little if anything has changed since the mid-nineties and that Italy faces many of the same problems it faced then: namely, widespread illiberalism and the threat of a communist takeover. Both these issues, argues Berlusconi, are manifest in his ‘persecution’ at the hands of Italy’s ‘red judiciary’, as he is fond of calling them, which are currently trying him in six cases for crimes that include child prostitution and tax fraud. Nonetheless, or rather because of this, Berlusconi still believes that he is the right man to bring about a liberal revolution in Italy, despite having ruled the country for nine of the last eighteen years.
Since announcing his intention to run in the elections that are due to be held on the 24th and the 25th of February, Berlusconi has been flooding the media with the same strategy that won him the 2004/2005 elections. In the last couple of months Berlusconi’s politics have chiefly consisted of a series of ‘wild cards’ – the most famous being his purchase of the Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli for his club AC Milan, which allegedly won him several thousand votes – and television appearances in which he has repeatedly slandered opposition, indulged in sexist behaviour and made extravagant promises, such as that to abolish the main tax on housing were he to obtain a parliamentary majority.
Yet, recent polls published by the economic daily Il Sole 24 Ore show him as having the support of 28% of the electorate, significantly more than he did when he first started his campaign in December, against the 35% of the opposition. While his party stands little chance of obtaining a majority sufficient for ruling, Berlusconi could return to power in a coalition with the centrist party led by Mario Monti. Meanwhile, Berlusconi has shrewdly declared that his aim is to become Economic Minister for the new government, adding that it is the only role worthy of his ambition seeing as the stringent checks and balances provided by the Italian constitution make the Prime Minister virtually redundant.
One of the very surprising and depressing aspects of the electoral campaign so far has been the apparent ease with which Berlusconi has prevailed over usually competent journalists who were supposed to deal him his deathblow. As a guest on Michele Santoro’s Servizio Pubblico, a political program with a large following in Italy especially among leftists, what was supposed to be a rigorous grilling degenerated into a farcical medley of accusations, insults, and low-grade dramatics with the result that much of the debate that followed focused on Berlusconi’s tomfoolery, such as when he wiped (symbolic) dirt off Marco Travaglio’s chair, a journalist known in Italy as the ‘anti-Berlusconi’.
It is likely that this incident, which was reported by most newspapers and replayed obsessively on the internet, won Berlusconi a significant amount of respect and possibly votes, for it engages with exactly the kind of cultural theatrics that are popular in Italy and that feature, often problematically, just as prominently in the country’s politics. Even Mario Monti who is known for his professorial manner that often verges on the sombre has recently been trying his hand (perhaps on the prompting of David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s campaign guru who is said to have advised Monti on his strategy) at a Berlusconi-style politics of machismo, cheek, and charm. Within a few days of having ridiculed, albeit obliquely, on television the ex-minister Renato Brunetta for his short stature, Monti went on to adopt a puppy during a television chat show, much to the general delight of the audience.
Berlusconi’s cameo appearance at the Stazione Centrale was in some ways a similarly exhilarating experience. The general excitement at being confronted with the unexpected in a familiar place, not to mention of being so close to a man as rich as he is infamous and who has for better or for worse made history in Italy, was evident in the enthusiastic reception given to him by a substantial number of spectator-travellers, many of whom felt obliged to record the scene on their mobile phones. A smiling, middle-aged woman standing not far from me even called her mother, certainly to boast about what was happening to her but perhaps also out of a desire to share what she considered a happy moment that quite naturally lent itself to intimacy.
And yet there were many people who while making an equally theatrical display of their opinions condemned what was happening before them, not least the sheer intrusiveness of the political spectacle. Another middle-aged woman who was present at the time loudly protested that Berlusconi’s “silly campaigning” had forced her to lose sight of her children among the crowds who had by that point formed around him and that the police were doing very little to disperse. Others quite simply abused him verbally for allegedly having ruined their day or shouted things along the lines of ‘enough with politics’. Clearly, there is a feeling that the passionate personal identification that Berlusconi quite literally imposes upon the Italian public and by means of which he has and continues to make many political converts, is no longer welcome and, crucially, at times no longer tolerated. Perhaps this will show in the elections in the next few days.