He saw himself as a modern Caesar.
Now his decline is epic
- The Observer, Sunday 21 June 2009
It's impossible to say today whether Silvio Berlusconi will fall as the result of a scandal that has its origins in his Caesar-like vision of power without limit or constraint - or whether he will succeed in regaining control over a crisis that for more than a month now has attracted headlines around the world and not just in Italy. What is certain is that a rift has emerged between the prime minister and the country and, even more importantly, between the leader and his supporters. It is a wound that could be fatal for a politician who for the past 15 years has conducted the most ambitious experiment in modern populism that the west has known.
In ensuring the constant consecration of The Leader before his people, every barrier between the public and the private had to be demolished. So when Berlusconi stood for election for the first time in 1994 he gave 50 million Italians the gift of his family photograph album. There were photos of Berlusconi as a child, of Berlusconi with his actress wife, and of Berlusconi the successful businessman. Now that potent mixture of the personal and political has become his undoing. Fate has imprisoned him in a mythical macho landscape that he constructed with his own hands, populated by young women and aspirant starlets, and rife with sexual innuendo.
And it is those women who are the beginning of the downfall - quite public, utterly political - for the leader who defined himself as a ladykiller and epic lover. When La Repubblica, almost two months ago, revealed that the prime minister had gone to the birthday party of Noemi Letizia, an 18-year-old living in the suburbs of Naples, things went off the rails in an unprecedented fashion. Berlusconi's wife accused him of using his friendships with young women to choose candidates for the European elections. She defined that method as "trashy politics".
Speaking to La Repubblica, Veronica Lario added something else. She said "my husband frequents minors," and that he did this "because he is ill, to the extent that I have asked his doctor to help him, as he would anyone who is not well".
At this point Berlusconi lost his head. When we asked him for an interview, he refused. When our paper publicly challenged him, every day, to answer 10 questions relating to the allegations made by his wife and the contradictory accounts emerging from this scandal, he reacted with insults. He has given five different versions of his relations with Noemi Letizia and her family, and has gone so far as to denounce a subversive plot to overthrow him.
But the prime minister is standing at the edge of a precipice. Two young women from Bari have told magistrates that they were paid by an intermediary to attend parties with other girls, at Berlusconi's homes in Rome and in Sardinia. An investigation into the possible abetting of prostitution is under way. In European papers, pictures of the prime minister, surrounded by young women, are doing the rounds. In Italy, Berlusconi has successfully sought an injunction on their publication. In Italy, the public has reacted by awarding Berlusconi 35% of the vote when he expected to gain 45%. His party is in disarray. He himself is silent and refuses to answer journalists' questions, and even the Church, his great ally, has been obliged to distance itself.
The prime minister, in freefall, describes the crisis as a coup. As far as La Repubblica is concerned, we will continue in our work as if this were a normal country. We will continue to condemn this abuse of public power.