On Oct. 14, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament amid a barrage of criminal cases, sex scandals, and embarrassing taped conversations, not to mention Italy's worst financial crisis in decades. The news prompted many around the world to ask: Just what will it take for Berlusconi to lose his job?
To shed some light on this topic, Foreign Policy spoke with Beppe Severgnini, one of Italy's best-known journalists, a veteran Silvio-watcher, and author of the new book Mamma Mia: Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad. We discussed the prime minister's control over the media, the incompetence of his enemies, and whether Italian men are actually envious of their leader's bunga-bunga lifestyle.
Foreign Policy: So let's start with the basic premise of your book. How is it that Silvio Berlusconi has managed to survive half a dozen scandals, any one of which would have ended the career of most democratic leaders?
Beppe Severgnini: Well, there are 10 reasons in my book. At this moment, you can say a few of these reasons are more important than others. Even now, he continues to introduce himself as an outsider and a non-politician, though he's certainly one of the most experienced politicians in Europe -- as shrewd as you can get. He can maneuver in Parliament and get just enough votes -- and the way he actually gets those votes is by offering government posts, as he did last week.
Number two, the alternative is still pretty weak. The opposition is growing, but a lot of people still don't see an alternative. Personally, I think any alternative is better. You and I could form a government, and I think we'd do well compared to what is happening now.
Third, Italy is a very tribal culture. There is a very tribalistic attitude toward politics. There are people who would vote for the devil if it would keep the other side out.
But all of these are kind of thinning out now, and definitely Berlusconi is on his way out. It's a matter of weeks or months.
FP: So what was the turning point? When did his tricks stop working?
BS: I think it's a combination of scandals that are literally beyond imagination. It probably started in 2009 when he attended the birthday party of a girl who was turning 18, which means he was seeing her before she was of age. And then his wife left him and wrote a very vitriolic letter in the newspapers saying, "My husband is sick and is offering virgins to the Minotaur," or whatever. So this opened up a Pandora's box of scandals that have lasted for two years.
He might have survived that too, if not for this massive economic crisis. Italy's got a huge public debt: 120 percent of GDP. The costs of servicing that debt are going up. So it's a combination of bad economic data and this barrage of scandals that probably did it for him.
Don't forget, youth unemployment in Italy is 28.5 percent, which is the highest in Europe after Greece. Are you happy with a government that keeps your kids out of work? During a rare public meeting not long ago, Mr. Berlusconi told a girl who had asked him what she should do about her future, "You're pretty. You should marry a rich husband."
FP: I'm curious what you thought of the argument in a recent article in the New Yorker, which made the case that Berlusconi's attitude toward women -- turning models and dental hygienists into parliamentarians because of their looks and all of that -- is actually normal for Italian men, which accounts for much of his appeal.
BS: I think that's a little unfair. Of course, Berlusconi embodies many things that are lurking behind the national psychology. But to say it's typically Italian, no. Yes, if you tell me that most Italians are flirtatious when they see a pretty woman, even when they shouldn't be; yes, it's absolutely true.
But I don't know any Italian man who has partied with 25 women a third of his age. A, because it's too tiring, and B, because it's too expensive.