Italy's next prime minister will probably be the richest man in the land, master of the country's three main commercial TV networks and of an empire that includes newspaper, magazine and book publishing, insurance, telecommunications, cinemas and banking. Silvio Berlusconi, the 65-year-old real-estate-developer-turned-media-mogul, is the firm favourite to win the May 13 general election as head of an alliance of the centre-right.
His supporters see him as a saviour who will sweep away the fetters of bureaucracy and inefficiency; his opponents as a Per"n-like "strongman" who threatens Italian democracy - an impression not allayed when, just two weeks before the vote, Berlusconi had 12 million copies of a photographic biography of himself delivered, at vast expense, to Italian homes.
The election will be a for-or-against Berlusconi battle. The alliance of Berlusconi's Forza Italia - to a large extent an outgrowth of his corporate empire - with the Northern League and the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale will be competing against a lacklustre and often precarious alliance of the centre-left headed by Francesco Rutelli, a non-party candidate whose main attributes are a successful mayorship of Rome, his youth and good looks.
One person who has been tracking Berlusconi's career with interest is Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary history at Florence University. The British academic is one of Italy's most respected analysts of recent history and contemporary politics. He writes regularly for the national daily La Repubblica and his books are used in Italian schools.
"Berlusconi is a dynamic, tireless, intelligent entrepreneur who has moved from business into politics," Ginsborg says. "His basic message is that he has been amazingly successful in becoming, from humble origins, the richest man in Italy and that he will apply those skills to the nation-state: 'I will do for Italy what I've done for myself.' Essentially it is a kind of late-Thatcherite message that corporate values should be applied to the nation: productivity, efficiency, hierarchy. He also stresses radical reform of the bureaucracy and a major programme of public works to appeal to the southern unemployed."
Ginsborg adds that, while electoral sociology is always complicated, Berlusconi's main appeal is to housewives, the self-employed, small entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and big business. But many unemployed or under-employed in the south believe the "Berlusconi magic" will bring more jobs and better pay. His opponents include most of Italy's educated middle classes.
Berlusconi's rise began in an era when privately owned television was not regulated. "He built up a virtual monopoly - more than 80 per cent in viewing terms - of commercial television in the 1980s, thanks to the incapacity of Italy's parliament to establish clear laws on oligopolies or monopolies," Ginsborg says.
During his career he has been convicted of crimes ranging from perjury and illegal financing of political parties (with his former ally and former prime minister Bettino Craxi) to bribery of tax inspectors and corporate irregularities. But the time elapsed between first trials, appeals and supreme court decisions has brought into play statutes of limitations for the charges on which he had originally been found guilty. Thus, although he has been found guilty more than once, he has never been sentenced. An official investigation is now under way of a network of at least 64 offshore companies connected to Berlusconi's Fininvest corporation, following the completion of an 800-page report by international auditing firm KPMG.
Italian judges suspect these companies were used to set up slush funds. "In other EU countries, Berlusconi's legal record would automatically disqualify him from office," Ginsborg explains. "This is not the case in Italy, although there is a strong minority of public opinion that believes it should be so. Berlusconi has fought a ferocious rearguard action, claiming that he is the victim of political plots and of politically biased judges. This is disquieting because there is no substantial evidence of that and his attempt to discredit the judges suggests that, if he wins the elections, there will be an attack on the autonomy of the investigative judiciary.
"These judges, in the long fight against corruption from 1992 onwards, have on occasion been excessively heavy-handed. But there is no question that they tried to perform an important function, to clean up public life and make it conform to the laws of the land. What is depressing is that the majority of the country does not seem to regard this activity as important." Ginsborg believes this is because "Italy suffers from what has been called 'normative inflation' - far too many regulations, far too often ignored. There is thus a great uncertainty regarding the law, and people are very frightened of it. Many Italians perceive the law as an interference in the private tasks of getting on, of earning a living, so they tend to sympathise with Berlusconi."
Ginsborg also believes that, to a great extent, the parties of the centre-left, in particular the Democrats of the Left, descendants of the old Communist Party, are at least partly to blame for the rise of Berlusconi.
"In the mid-1990s the collapse of the Christian Democrats, who had ruled Italy since the second world war, and of the Socialists, who were frequent coalition partners, left an enormous vacuum in the centre right. One must bear in mind that, historically, Italians have always voted for the centre-right. In 1994, Berlusconi, in a brilliant blitzkrieg campaign based on his own mass-media empire, was able to get over 20 per cent of the vote and become prime minister. That government lasted only ten months. In 1996, the centre-left won the elections, but, once in office, they failed to tackle the issue of incompatibility between control of television networks and a political role.
"I think Massimo D'Alema (secretary of the Democrats of the Left and prime minister from 1998 to 2000) underestimated Berlusconi's potential. When the centre-left should have pushed through legislation on conflict of interest regarding his control of the media, when it should have been absolutely clear on his not being presentable because of his legal record, it failed. The centre-left let Berlusconi off the hook and is paying the price."
Ginsborg says a Berlusconi victory is in keeping with problems facing democracy throughout Europe, such as declining voter turnout, cynicism about politicians and falling interest in politics. But, unlike the media mogul's opponents, he does not regard him as a threat to Italian democracy - at least not in formal terms.
"Berlusconi is not a fascist, he doesn't believe in abolishing free elections, he is not going to abolish trade unions or freedom of the press," Ginsborg says. But he adds that the situation is complex and he outlines three areas of concern. "The autonomy of the judiciary is not safe under Berlusconi. Also, this is an era of political passivity in which people no longer participate directly, in parties, unions or even the church; in which consumption and television, intimately linked, have become tremendously important. As premier, Berlusconi would control not only his three national networks, but also the three state networks and national radio. In other words, almost all TV broadcasting. The press would remain free, but that's small fry compared with control of all six of Italy's major national networks. That is the area, along with the judiciary, in which I think Italian democracy will be significantly weakened.
"Also, in order to win the elections, Berlusconi has allied with an openly racist party, the Northern League. These people have never hidden their racism, although some commentators have chosen to ignore it when it seemed the league was offering something fresh to Italian politics. At the regional elections in Milan last year, the league paraded with a giant cardboard vacuum cleaner, saying they wanted to 'vacuum-up' all illegal immigrants. This kind of symbolism reduces the immigrant from a human being to filth that must be cleansed.
"These are very slippery and dangerous paths. In France, various rightwing governments never did a national deal with Le Pen, but Berlusconi has done just that with the league. In terms of making racism respectable, allowing it a free voice, Berlusconi could be said to be a danger to democracy."
Paul Ginsborg's Italy and its Discontents , 1980-2001 will be published by Penguin in October. On May 22 he gives a talk on the Italian election results at London's Birkbeck College.