Down But Never Out

Why Silvio Berlusconi is suddenly popular again.

Two days after he was stripped of his seat in the Italian Senate, derided by the national and international press, deserted by half of his own party's congressmen and senators, Silvio Berlusconi suddenly got popular again. He saw a 6 percent bounce in his approval rating (albeit to 26 percent) and his center -right coalition enjoys a unexpected 35 percent approval in the polls, slightly ahead of the center-left Democratic Party (PD). The Silvio saga is like a Quentin Tarantino movie: you shoot the bad guy, dump him in a reservoir, then bury him in a poisoned landfill, yet he still comes charging back at you.

But talk about a fall from grace. The three-time prime minister was convicted of tax fraud, and stripped of his passport and political immunity. Any judge -- and he has many personal rivals in the judicial system -- can order his arrest anytime. As of now, however, he won't be going to jail. Italian law stipulates that septuagenarians can choose alternate sentencing; Berlusconi has opted for community service. "They want me to scrub toilets on my knees," he publicly complains.

So how come he is not history yet? Why does he still cast such a shadow on Italian and European politics? Because the press corps and scores of sophisticated political analysts -- mesmerized by the lurid tales of Bunga Bunga parties, scantily clad young ladies, and excesses worthy of a modern-day Satyricon -- often lost sight of the real target. For almost 20 years, since he decided to found his party Forza Italia in 1994, Berlusconi has interpreted and channeled the deep political sentiments of almost half of the Italian voters. His home turf: a staunch, historically-rooted blend of resentments, anti-tax fervor, distrust in government and political parties, and anticommunism. While the old champ may be leaving the stadium in tatters, the fans, are still there.

For two decades, the left, and many international observers, described Berlusconi and Forza Italia as a "plastic party," one lobbed into office by ignorant, crass voters, drugged by heavy, daily doses of commercial TV shows (pumped, of course, through Berlusconi's TV empire). But now a more accurate analyses are changing the paradigm, offering a much more focused picture of contemporary Italy. The historian Giovanni Orsina, deputy director of the School of Government at Luiss University in Rome and visiting professor at Sciences-Po Paris, stirred the waters with his new book Il berlusconismo nella storia d'Italia, which makes the case that  Berlusconi is not a "freak accident" in Italian politics, but that his populist, bizarre mix of anti-status quo propaganda and reluctance toward robust economic reforms, has been part of the national DNA since unification, in 1861.

The "Berlusconi miracle" -- namely, inventing a political party in a matter of weeks in 1994 -- is not just a by-product of his colossal media empire. According to Orsina, the real sparkle comes from an old, national cultural attitude. Berlusconi appealed to something deep within the Italian political soul: "You guys do not need reforms," he said. "Everything is all right with you. Do not listen to moral sermons, do not try to be better, you are all right. Enjoy."

Orsina's Berlusconi was the perfect reverse of John F. Kennedy's appeal to young Americans: Ask what your country can do for you, take it as much of it as you can, and live happily. Indeed, while the majority of voters employed by the state vote for the center-left, the independent workers, the self-employed, the entrepreneurs have long been Berlusconi's base, faithfully casting their votes for "Silvio" -- especially in the North and in the first 10 years of his political adventure. These are not bored housewives or lazy couch potatoes: many of them are educated, aware of technological and social innovations, yet they remain skeptical of the left's agenda.

So who will they turn to now? Berlusconi is now a fatally wounded leader; he is (at least, officially) gone from politics. The best political obituary for Berlusconi was offered by his former ally Giuliano Urbani, the co-founder of Forza Italia. Back in 1993, Urbani, a moderate political science professor in Florence, went to Gianni Agnelli, then Fiat chairman. "All the centrist parties are broken in Italy, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Republicans," said Urbani. "If we do not start a center-right party, the former communist, led by Achille Occhetto, will win the next elections. You, Mr. Agnelli should be our new leader." Politely, Agnelli declined the offer and Urbani took the project to Berlusconi, from Turin and Fiat to Milan and Mediaset. Berlusconi eagerly agreed, galvanized his base, and Forza Italia was born.

Urbani has now left active politics and in a rare interview with leftist daily La Repubblica summed up the experience: "We had two points in our agenda, to implement liberal economic reforms in Italy while stopping the communists." But the results were bittersweet: "We indeed stopped the communists, no leader in the Democratic Party today can be called a communist. This was a success. Conversely, we failed to spur the reforms. This is our failure."

Today, Italy's voters are split in three chunks. Beppe Grillo and his maverick Five Star Party enjoy roughly 20-25 percent of votes and keep hammering on a protectionist, anti-European platform. The center-left, meanwhile, is stuck at 34 percent with Florence's mayor Matteo Renzi now the PD front runner for the Dec. 8 primaries. Indeed, he's already challenging Premier Enrico Letta for power. Savvy President Giorgio Napolitano has now to rein in the two ambitious leftist champions: only one can be the party flag-bearer and the new prime minister.

On the center-right front, Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano and his former "Berlusconiani" allies will try to buy time. But the new party is untested. According to Renzi, "at the polls Alfano is just roadkill for Berlusconi." It may be slightly crude way of questioning Alfano's political strength, but it speaks to an essential truth: he's got a solid base but not enough to win a majority.

For the Democratic Party and the center-left to have a chance at forming a stable majority, they'll have to conquer a decent chunk of moderate voters, while regaining at least a slice of votes lost to Grillo. It's not exactly an easy maneuver: in fact, it would be a "triangulation" worthy of Bill Clinton and Dick Morris -- talk to the center while consolidating the left flank. Only Renzi seems capable of achieving this feat, but it'll be a tough sell: leftist websites already accuse him of being a Berlusconiano.

Which, of course, bring us back to Berlusconi. His voters are up for grabs. And though he insists he will remain as head of Forza Italia, he cannot run; instead, he toys with idea of crowning one of his daughters as his political heir. But he's not going quietly. Indeed, the 77-year-old may be have been sentenced, but in a sense he's never been more free. He's the opposition now -- the onus of dealing with taxes, spending cuts, balancing the budget, and curbing Italy's monstrous public debt is left to others. He can attack Germany's Angela Merkel, the euro, austerity, whatever as the real culprit -- who cares if Italy will be chairing the European Union in just six months. A populist Berlusconi is a dangerous Berlusconi. And he knows his audience.

Italy has not been growing for more than a generation, unemployment has skyrocketed in the south, two million young men and women under 25 are out of school and out of work, wasting time at home, depressed, bitter, and soon to be unemployable. Thirty years ago, Italians under 30 were making more money than their parents; today the opposite is true. Meanwhile, Italian companies struggle in the global economy, weighed down by heavy taxes that are also taking a tool on the middle class. The billionaires and their companies, of course, continue to elude these garnishments.

Italy desperately needs economic reforms -- but this requires a stable cabinet, capable of spurring growth, cutting taxes, and curbing the debt that is bleeding the country of innovation. Ask political leaders of almost any party: they all privately agree on this agenda. But when asked who's going to implement it, they simply smile and say: "E chi lo sa?" Who knows.

For years, there's been a line of thinking -- that Italy is paralyzed because Berlusconi was in charge. But what if Berlusconi was in charge because the country is paralyzed?



My Dinner With Alptekin

In which your humble correspondent breaks bread with the Uighur democracy movement in Arlington, Virginia.

One day, the Communist Party chief of the vast Chinese region of Xinjiang visits a rural area on a publicity tour. A little girl comes up to him and says, "Mr. Secretary, there's this beautiful Uighur baby -- you should hug her." As soon as he does, the baby starts crying and spits on his face! "What's her name?" the party chief bellows. "Rebiya," the little girl says. And so he shouts and drops the baby!

I heard this joke from Nury Turkel, a lawyer and activist for the independence movement of China's beleaguered Uighur minority -- a Turkic-language-speaking, Islam-practicing people, numbering around 20 million -- at a dinner party in an Arlington, Virginia, apartment building on Nov. 11. Two weeks prior, a Uighur had crashed a car into the heart of Beijing, killing five and injuring dozens. An attack like that is extremely rare in China, and it reportedly led to scaled-up scrutiny of Uighurs throughout the country. On Nov. 16, Xinjiang authorities said assailants armed with knives and axes attacked a police station in a remote part of the region, leaving 11 dead, though details are murky. Ethnic tensions remain high, and more bloodshed will likely follow.

The joke, which Turkel told to me with good cheer and decent timing, surrounded by Uighur luminaries from around the world, may not have been funny, but the symbolism was clear. The Rebiya, of course, is Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the leader of the Uighur independence, or democracy, movement. Like with Tibetan activists abroad, China views members of the Uighur movement as "terrorists" trying to "illegally split" the country, and it has made clear it will brook no dissent in Xinjiang. All Kadeer and the Uighur movement can do, the joke implies, is spit in the face of the Chinese. And we all know what happens when you drop a baby.

The dinner party, in celebration of the 80th and 69th anniversaries of the founding of two short-lived East Turkestan republics, had that same spit-in-the-eye sense of fatalism. In 1950, one year after reunifying China, the Communist Party conquered the roughly 640,000 square mile swath of land that East Turkestan was part of, calling it Xinjiang, which means "New Frontier." China has ruled the territory since then; today, no country recognizes the Uighur homeland. Although China claims some Uighurs in Xinjiang work with the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which it calls a terrorist organization, it is unknown whether there is an active freedom-fighting movement operating within Xinjiang, and the U.S. State Department does not include ETIM on its list of terrorist organizations. I'm no oddsmaker, but East Turkestan's independence seems only slightly more likely than Dennis Rodman being named ambassador to North Korea.

Turkel, a former president of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association (UAA), an advocacy group, and Alim Seytoff, the current president, addressed, on some level, the quixotic nature of their goal. The UAA held an event commemorating the East Turkestan anniversaries on Capitol Hill on Nov. 12. They invited members of Congress, "but because of the shutdown none of them will come," Seytoff said, ignoring -- out of politeness, political savvy, obliviousness, or a combination of the three -- the fact that the government shutdown had already ended. The real reason is likely a combination of the near-total lack of interest Americans have in the Uighur cause and Beijing's well-documented policy of punishing politicians who meet with people -- like Uighur activists -- it considers enemies of the state.

Turkel fled China roughly a decade ago and began speaking out against official repression. "They wouldn't let my parents leave China and come to my wedding," he said. "That really pissed me off." Over the last few years, Xinjiang has been in a bad way. Ethnic riots in July 2009 in the region's capital, Urumqi, left nearly 200 dead, and July 2013 saw dozens others killed in attacks that Beijing blamed on "Islamic terrorists." Using these attacks in part as justification, local authorities have severely limited the right to speak out or assemble. Like with Tibet, Xinjiang is officially an "autonomous region," but it is firmly in Beijing's palm. Another famous joke, Turkel recounted that night, goes like this: "When the Chinese select the chairman of the region, they put all of the Uighurs into a box. Whoever has the softest head -- one you can really push your finger into -- they pick."

The dinner was held in a conference room on the first floor of an Arlington apartment building not far from the freeway, an apartment building that Yelp reviewers have described as "cheap" and "clean as f***." Apart from a conference table, the room had a little kitchen area and comfortable couches, where the women and children sat.

Besides myself, the other guests were all Uighurs, many of whom grew up in mainland China. One, who was last in Beijing in 1997, said, "It's a nice city; I just don't like the god-damn government." I asked a businessman whether he had been back to Xinjiang lately. "No." he responded. "I was back in East Turkestan. 'Xinjiang' is the word I hate more than any other. I was back in East Turkestan." Besides coming from Turkey and across the United States, many of the Uighurs had flown in from Germany, where the WUC was founded and where many of them live.

As we ate home-cooked Uighur lamb dumplings and flat noodles, Turkel introduced me to the roughly 15 men sitting around a table. "This guy runs the Uighur show in Japan," he said, pointing to a gruff man in a suit jacket. "And this older gentleman -- before Kadeer, this guy's father, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, was the face of the Uighur movement." Alptekin was a top official in East Turkestan in the 1930s and a celebrity among the Uighurs in Turkey, where many of them settled after 1949. "It's a Googleable name," Turkel told me. It was a casual gathering, though as the night progressed, several men stood up and gave speeches. Throughout the evening, the ground shook a few times, as a man lifting weights in an adjacent gym threw his barbells on the floor.

The son of the former face of the Uighur movement is Erkin Alptekin, a former WUC president and a Germany-based former journalist for the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty. The WUC's website says Alptekin has attended "more than 6,000 international conference[s]" over the last 35 years. "Can you believe it? This guy is 74 and he was out drinking with me until 2 a.m. in Dupont Circle!" Turkel said.

"I'm a good Muslim, but I love beer and vodka," Alptekin responded good-naturedly.

Alptekin moved around the table, smiling and shaking hands. One of the men poured cups of whiskey under the table by his legs and surreptitiously -- but with a wink -- distributed them. The conversation was in Uighur, so when Alptekin stood up to speak I could not understand what provoked the belly laughs and good-natured ribbing. "I'm so tired of speeches," Alptekin said, plopping down next to me with an exaggerated sigh. Then he grew philosophical. "My own personal opinion: Things are going to get worse." The Chinese, he said, try to call this radical Islam or terrorism, but it's not: It's an independence movement that has lasted for several hundred years.

I only knew one of the men at the table -- a friend of a good friend from China -- and after listening to several speeches that I did not understand, and several gulps of whiskey, I went to go talk to him. But he doesn't speak much English, and I felt communicating with him in Mandarin would be in poor taste. So I smiled at him, and he smiled sadly at me, and pulled out his accordion. "We eat, we talk, we drink -- water or tea, not vodka, like me," Alptekin said with an exaggerated wink, as my friend stared into the distance beyond the gym wall and started playing a mournful song on the accordion. "And that's how we free East Turkestan."

Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images