By Josh Martin ’14, PAC Weekly Events Coordinator
Corruption seems to be synonymous with politics in America today. Whether it’s campaign financing, lobbying, or Weiner’s latest sexting scandal, it can feel like the American public deals with the most corrupt politicians in the world. However, while American politics may seem corrupt and broken, it fails to compare to the level of corruption that has engulfed Italian politics since the end of World War II.
In Italy’s first democratic election in 1948, the U.S. funneled $1 million into the centrist Christian Democratic party in hopes of defeating the Communist party, setting the precedent for corruption in Italian politics during the First Republic. What followed were 51 governments in 50 years, each consisting of multiparty coalitions always formed around the centrist Christian Democrats. This era of unstable governments but stable politics epitomized the party system Giovanni Sartori characterized as “polarized pluralism”, a tripolar system where communists held the far left pole, the Christian Democrats held the center pole, and fascists held the far right pole. In order to keep the communists out of the governing coalition, however, the centrists often resorted to corruption. In 1978, Christian Democrat Aldo Moro attempted to broker an “Historic Compromise” with the communists to have them join the governing coalition. Moro was kidnapped and murdered.
Then came the Tangentopoli scandal of 1992. After being arrested on charges of bribery, socialist politician Mario Chiesa unveiled a massive network of corruption in Italian politics, breaching all four major parties. In total over 100 politicians and 300 members of Italian industries were convicted of corruption, leading to a grassroots anti-government movement culminating in the electoral reform of 1993 and christening the beginning of the Second Republic, a time dominated by two major party coalitions: the center-left and the center-right.
This set the stage for Silvio Berlusconi to enter the political arena by means of his center-right political party, Forza Italia. Before entering politics, Berlusconi controlled Italy’s only media empire, owning media giants Fininvest and Mediaset, as well as owning AC Milan Football Club. His personal fortune and influence as a media tycoon allowed himself to gain the electorate necessary to succeed in his run for Prime Minister of Italy in 1994. His victory exemplified the application of marketing to politics; Berlusconi’s target voters were the young and the elderly because they watched the most television, and since Berlusconi owned three of the seven national television channels he could portray himself positively via his media empire and sway voters through his “personalization” of politics. Since that victory, Berlusconi has served as Prime Minister four times and has maintained his position as the leader of the center-right.
Predictably, Berlusconi has been attacked by political rivals for protecting his political interests via business and his business interests via politics, but that is not the only example of foul play Berlusconi has had a hand in. On top of the media “reform” bills he passed like the Gasparri and Frattini laws (which preserved the status quo), Berlusconi also became linked with bunga bunga parties where he allegedly took part in sex parties with minors.
In his twenty years in politics, Berlusconi has faced trial around thirty times for everything from perjury to illegal financing of his political party to tax fraud. Yet time and time again he has gotten the charges dropped and maintains his place at the helm of the Italian center-right coalition. Until now. For the first time on August 1, 2013, Berlusconi was definitively convicted of a crime. Berlusconi will serve a one-year sentence likely on house arrest or doing community service as punishment for using offshore companies to purchase the rights to American movies, reselling them to his media empire in order to pay lower taxes. Furthermore, his appeal on his conviction of sleeping with an underage prostitute is due to be reviewed in October.
Will Italian corruption end with Berlusconi? Uncertainty remains, but optimists have reason to hope. The Italian election of 2013 proved interesting for plenty of reasons, but its most interesting story related to the rise of a new political party: The Five Star MoVement. Founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo, the Five Star MoVement is an anti-corruption, anti-establishment party that cannot be accurately placed into a traditional left-right political spectrum. In the election in February, the center-left coalition led by Bersani gained 29.5% of the vote, the center-right coalition led by Berlusconi received 29.1%, and the Five Star MoVement party received 25.5% and was the most voted individual party. Considering that in the 2006 general election the center-left coalition received 49.8% while the center-right received 49.7%, it is obvious that the Five Star MoVement has truly thrown a wrench in Italy’s political climate, receiving a quarter of the nation’s vote as a new alternative to the previous duopoly in Italian party politics. Grillo’s success has forced the center-left and center-right to form a grand coalition in order to maintain their primacy in Italian government, but with Italy’s history of dissolved governments and Berlusconi’s pending criminal convictions, a time may soon come for a new party to enter Italy’s higher politics offices.
Italy’s history of corruption in government is truly astounding, but will history continue to repeat itself? The most recent election results for the Five Star MoVement suggest that the public is finally fed up with corruption and ready to end politics as they know it in Italy. However, it is important to bear in mind that this same dissatisfaction happened in 1992 with the Tangentopoli scandal only to rear its ugly head again when Berlusconi rose to power. Can corruption be banished from Italian politics? I fear it cannot.
Josh Martin ’14 is a Math and Political Science major from Decorah, Iowa. He is serving as the Weekly Events Coordinator for PAC this year. Contact him at email@example.com.