The cult of Silvio Berlusconi: Why Italians keep voting for 'Il Cavaliere'

Story highlights

  • Scandal-plagued three time ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi finished second in Italy's election
  • Italians and non-Italians have very different views of Berlusconi, argues journalist Bill Emmott
  • For all his faults, Emmott says Berlusconi did better than most at listening to his voters

On the subject of Silvio Berlusconi Italians and non-Italians are, to paraphrase George Bernard-Shaw's famous quip about Britain and America, divided by a common political language.

We think we share the view that in a political world dominated by mass communications, there is little room for forgiveness about scandals, or other personal failures, or a poor record in office. Yet on those grounds, Berlusconi should have died a political death long ago, rather than coming a very close second in this week's Italian elections.

Foreigners, perhaps, will always remain baffled by Berlusconi's success in continuing to attract voters. But Italians, horrified by him though plenty of them are, tend to be a lot less surprised. That is because they think of him in context, rather than in isolation. In Italian politics, the context is all.

Bill Emmott

What this means, and what it meant for Berlusconi's remarkable feat in nearly doubling his share of the vote between his opinion poll ratings in November 2012 and the election itself, can be laid out in the following evidently misleading indicators:

He makes unbelievable promises. In part this is true: one of Berlusconi's traits is his willingness to say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, to attract attention from different groups or on different occasions, totally without shame. Italians know this, and those who support him tend to see it as an endearing part of his character, part of his desire to entertain and to please. But also it is misleading: the key promise he made during the 2013 election campaign was entirely believable -- that he would cut or even abolish a dreaded property tax, known by its Italian initials as IMU.

His record makes him untrustworthy. Yes, on overall economic policy. But not on taxes. He has promised to cut them before, and has delivered on at least some of those promises. The promise to cut IMU was made in an incredibly artful way, as he wrote to voters saying he would pay them back for the tax from his own pocket, which very few will have believed. But that did not matter: it drew attention to the proposal in an eye-catching way, and reinforced the only important point -- that he would cut the tax.

Opinion: Italy's election leaves country, and eurozone, on financial high-wire

He is irresponsible. Yes, but so is almost everyone to the cynical Italian political mind. His plan for how to finance this tax cut had as many holes in it as a sieve, but that did not really matter. It would have to be financed by taxes on other people, or cuts in spending on other things. Fine, said his voters: at least this awful tax will go. In offering a relentless focus on that tax, he showed that he was listening to the pain of his voters and taking them seriously, rather than talking down to them like most other parties.

Filmmakers: Italy needs a wake-up call
Filmmakers: Italy needs a wake-up call

    JUST WATCHED

    Filmmakers: Italy needs a wake-up call

MUST WATCH

Filmmakers: Italy needs a wake-up call 03:45
Topless protesters denounce Berlusconi
Topless protesters denounce Berlusconi

    JUST WATCHED

    Topless protesters denounce Berlusconi

MUST WATCH

Topless protesters denounce Berlusconi 00:49
Italy's election forecasts interim govt.
Italy's election forecasts interim govt.

    JUST WATCHED

    Italy's election forecasts interim govt.

MUST WATCH

Italy's election forecasts interim govt. 01:33
Changing Italy from the outside
Changing Italy from the outside

    JUST WATCHED

    Changing Italy from the outside

MUST WATCH

Changing Italy from the outside 02:25

His trials and sex scandals make him a national shame. Not really, though at times his behavior has stretched even the Italian tolerance. But the context is important: plenty of people think the justice system works disastrously badly in Italy, so if Berlusconi is caught up in it -- like so many others -- then so what? And his sex scandals are really part of his own marketing plan: he cavorts with scantily clad young women in order to make himself look glamorous, young, entertaining and happy. Moreover, his antics with women act as a distraction from his other weaknesses, like a kind of tranquillizer for those who might otherwise get angry with him. A lot of Italians, especially young women, hate him for this. But enough either don't care or are sympathetic enough to him to mean that this does not harm him fatally in political terms.

His opponents are more statesmanlike and responsible. Yes, that is true of Mario Monti, the caretaker prime minister for the past year who then decided to run in the elections with a centrist list of candidates. But it is not particularly true of his big opponents -- including the left-wing Democratic Party, which has its own scandals, its own selfish interests and, during the election campaign, its own evidence of the abuse of political power in the case of Italy's third-largest (and oldest) bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, whose business was allegedly run and distorted in the interests of local Democratic Party politicians in that area. So the PD (by its Italian initials) is also viewed as selfish by the public, neutralizing Berlusconi's disadvantage on that measure. Since both the PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, and Monti are dull, leaden communicators who failed to offer any positive, hopeful message for their voters, the way was opened for Berlusconi.

News: Italy seeks way out of political chaos

Only one party in the election really stood for change: the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo. This meant that Berlusconi's old-fashioned, tax-cutting message, geared towards preserving his own political power, had plenty of space in which to operate. And although Berlusconi did not stand for change, he was at least cheerful, smiling and entertaining.

Politics is now all about personalities, as was shown by the rise of Grillo, but he and Berlusconi are opposites in this regard. It is true that the discrediting of traditional political parties, combined with the preeminence of television, has given personalities a huge advantage in Italian politics, even if neither the PD nor Monti seemed able to grasp this. Personalities and even personal stories breed attention and loyalty, even if from different groups. One of the last Italian politicians to understand and exploit this was, unfortunately, Benito Mussolini.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Berlusconi owns Italy's three main commercial TV channels and its biggest advertising sales agency, and has billions of euros in cash to hand around to supporters and allies? Well, that isn't a misleading indicator. But it is a reason, perhaps too obvious to dwell upon, for Berlusconi's continuing success at the ripe old age of 76.

      Italian election

    • ctw intv girlfriend in a coma documentary on italy_00015828.jpg

      Why Italians need a wake-up call

      To repair their country, Italians will need to shed their ignavia and to become more active and demanding, the makers of "Girlfriend in a Coma" say.
    • Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of Italy's Democratic Party, takes part in an anti-racist march on December 17, 2011.

      Can the anti-Berlusconi save Italy?

      He won't claim to be the Jesus Christ of politics, or praise Barack Obama's "tan", and it's highly unlikely you'll bump into him at a bunga bunga party.
    • Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (R) poses with a supporter during a meeting with youth members of his People of Freedom (PDL) party in Rome on September 12, 2010

      Berlusconi: Colorful, controversial

      In further proof that seemingly nothing can bring him down, Italy's most colorful public figure is back in contention to lead his country once again.
    • This file picture taken on December 23, 2010 shows Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi giving his end of the year press conference at Villa Madama in Rome.

      Can nothing bring Berlusconi down?

      Despite the many scandals that have dogged Berlusconi since he entered politics nearly two decades ago, he is indisputably one of life's survivors.
    •  A fan waves the Italian flag as he leaves the arena of the Circus Maximus, after the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Italy and Spain on July 1, 2012 in Rome, Italy.

      CNN iReport: Not coming home

      When a journalist polled friends and contacts for their views on the elections, she found a breadth of views and a considerable dose of cynicism.
    • Eurozone bank notes and coin (file picture)

      Can Bersani-Monti save the economy?

      Italy's run-off between an ex-communist and a former cruise ship singer threatens to throw the country back into the spotlight of the crisis.
    • (File) Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a press conference after an emergency summit of European Union leaders on the crisis in Georgia at the headquarters of the European Council on September 1, 2008 in Brussels.

      Berlusconi's comeback: Disaster?

      A leading figure in the party poised to head Italy's next government says a return of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, would be "disaster."