360° Analysis

The Cold War’s Last Football Star


March 23, 2011 00:36 EDT

Bari, 24 March 2010. Silvio Berlusconi appears before a large crowd of supporters. They jump and shout in unison “Chi non salta è comunista!” – Who does not jump is a Communist, a football chant jeering the opposing fans. At 73, a jubilant Cavaliere joins his supporters with the gusto of a débutante.

His television networks propagate his message and indoctrinate viewers. He embodies dreams and apprehensions of entrepreneurs and workers, youngsters and retirees alike. He shines as a self made man who triumphs in all his endeavors. But it is this footballized “anti-communism” that forms Berlusconi’s core political message and is key to his success. Although apparently trivial, its roots lie deep in the perennial polarization of Italian politics.

A tale of two countries

Debates on Italy’s participation in World War I divided the country between interventionists and neutralists. Fascism came soon after the war and enjoyed wide mass support. At the same time, opposition to fascism persisted through communist and socialist activists and liberal intellectuals. Mussolini’s leadership and Italy’s tragic war misadventures ended in 1943 when an internal coup overthrew Il Duce and shortly after resulted in Italy’s capitulation to the Allies.

The worst was yet to come. With Allied troops confronting the Germans’ obstinate resistance, a civil war started in which partisan guerrillas, communists and fascists,  fought alongside the Allies and Nazis respectively, killing each other by the thousands.

Other divisions emerged soon after the war. The 1946 constitutional referendum neatly cut the country in two between a republican North and a monarchist South. The Cold War then found in Italy an ideal arena due to the country’s geographical location and communist presence. For more than forty years, the Christian Democrats (DC) and the Communists (PCI) captured the main stage of Italian politics waving the flags of anti-communism and anti-fascism respectively. The DC-PCI rivalry had its roots in old divisions and permeated deeper into Italian society. Crucially, the ever-important Catholic Church became one of the most vocal opponents of the Communists.

Enter the Great Marketer

The so-called First Republic collapsed following the end of the Cold War and a series of corruption scandals in 1992. The DC dissolved and the PCI split between a would-be social-democratic majority and an unrepentant communist minority. The demise of the Christian Democrats in particular left an immense vacuum. The former DC leaders were too close to the ancien régime to fill the void, and everybody to their right too marginal to matter. It was Silvio Berlusconi who broke into the arena with new marketing techniques borrowed from his business experience, a new political style and a modernization message.

During the crucial 1994 electoral campaign that led to his first term, Berlusconi insisted on both free-market reforms and anti-communism. This ingenious dual message won him an astonishing success. His first government team comprised genuine pro-market voices, such as foreign minister Antonio Martino, and seemed to confirm his liberalizing promises. But after the coalition government collapsed a few months later due to a Northern League defection, the laissez faire message lost relevance. Il Cavaliere returned to an anti-communist rhetoric that touched a deeper chord in the electorate. Pro-market agenda that has historically had little mass appeal in Italy was quietly abandoned.

The “C” factor

Responsible politicians are an indispensable ingredient for national reconciliation. After the end of the Cold War, many believed that the “end of history” would close the divisions plaguing Italy. Instead, Berlusconi rubbed salt on the hurt caused by decades of bitter polarization and played upon fears of the Red Scare to get elected. “Libertà” continues to be his mantra but, devoid of any liberalizing meaning, it merely stands for opposing “Communismo”.

In Berlusconi’s vocabulary anyone opposing him is a communist – he famously referred to The Economist as “Ecommunist”, the judges investigating his past (and present) and most opposition leaders have been labeled the same. Rather than using a cheap slogan, the claim of standing for anti-communism allows Berlusconi to claim inheritance to the electoral treasure of the anti-Left forces and to a preferential treatment by the Catholic Church – a Church he has rewarded with ad hoc legislation and which reciprocates with a benevolent attitude.

The legitimacy of his anti-communist discourse is then strengthened by an ongoing campaign to rewrite the recent past and the Italian civil war. The rehabilitation of the Italians who fought with Nazi Germany, in particular, has been the leitmotif of books, television series and films.

Politics as the continuation of football by other means

Berlusconi inherited Italian ideological divisions and has worked hard to keep them alive. Cold War anti-communism in Italy had legitimate concerns and generally legitimate goals. Now that the perceived threat is over, anti-communism survives as a fandom for a grotesque sport.

Football in particular is central to understanding Berlusconism. AC Milan, the team that Berlusconi saved from bankruptcy and made Europe’s finest, is central to his narrative of triumph over powerful foes. His speeches refer frequently to the beautiful game. “Forza Italia”, the party he founded in 1993 and dissolved in 2008, is also the standard chant for the national football team.

The two-party system – a positive side-effect of Berlusconism – is the perfect theatre to replicate both the football subculture of confrontation and its blind loyalty. In the Italian footballized political scene, discussions are in the us-versus-them mode. Issues like the North-South gap, female and youth unemployment, stagnant growth, organized crime and illegal immigration are upstaged by a focus on Berlusconi.

Once debate reaches these lows and the country is split in two, Berlusconi’s media empire is able to tip the political balance in his favor. Predictably, this technique has worked well in contests with ex-PCI candidates (against whom Berlusconi is unbeaten) but not with former-DC Romano Prodi (who defeated him twice).

Berlusconi’s success is often explained through the patent inadequacy of the opposition and its narcissism with insignificant issues. The argument is that many of his voters, though disillusioned, have nowhere else to turn. It is certainly true that the center-Left does not command a natural majority in Italy, particularly on key issues like immigration, taxation and globalization. But given Berlusconi’s unmitigated failure to keep his promises, he could only have continued to triumph in an enlarged sport arena where tribal loyalties outweigh minor concerns like performance.

Italians say that you can change anything in your life but your football team. When Juventus (Italy’s most popular team) was hit by massive scandals in 2006, few of its supporters defected to AC Milan or other teams. Most Berlusconi supporters are similarly likely to stick with him: apparently not even the latest allegations of encounters with an underage prostitute have cost him support.

Anti-Berlusconi Football Club

In spite of Berlusconi’s inflammatory speeches, anti-communism as an articulate position resonates less and less among Italians. The only parties openly referring to Communism lost parliamentary representation in 2008 and a few celebrated and a few mourned while the rest of the country barely took notice. Once new generations of voters and politicians appear that were not involved in the Cold War struggles, the old divisions are likely to wane.

In the meantime, Italian society remains deeply divided. In the same way in which he resurrected anti-communism, Berlusconi also coagulated the bitterest resentment against him. Several years ago, a poll found him as Italy’s most admired man at 3.4%, but the most hated at 13.5% (Osama Bin Laden came a distant second at 8.1%). It is presumable that his lead has become stronger in the last few years.

The second largest Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, and a series of other publications, opinion makers and writers have anti-Berlusconism as their main raison d’être and so do most center-left parties. Few conversations of opposition voters are without a disparaging reference to Il Cavaliere. “Chi non salta Berlusconi è” is a popular refrain of opposition meetings and demonstrations. Curiously, the resolute anti-business and anti-establishment position of many leftists reinforces Berlusconi’s characterization of it as the “undemocratic left”.

A world without Mr. B.

Reports of IlCavaliere’s political death have been greatly exaggerated for quite some time. His latest success in a confidence vote in December astonished many yet again but it seemed a Pyrrhic victory after defections hit his coalition and his popularity reached new lows. While it is entirely possible that he concludes his term in 2013, or even wins a possible early election in 2011, his grasp on the country and on his coalition seems to be fading.

The political project of Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s former ally and now rival for supremacy of the Right, is to head a Gaullist-like movement. As a former rightwing radical, Fini is unlikely to want to resurrect the past. If he becomes the leader of the Right, some will point to his earlier indiscretions like Roman salutes, and he will try to put a line under what happened in the past. This is perhaps why he has moved firmly towards a respectable middle-of-the-way stance, including surprising progressive statements on immigration, homosexuality and the Fascist past that did not go unnoticed, especially among the leftwing opinion.

Another oft-discussed scenario is a centrist coalition that resurrects the one-size-fits-all style of the old DC. Unsurprisingly, the self-appointed leaders of this project like Pier Ferdinando Casini are generally those with a nostalgia for DC rule. Similar plans have been discussed periodically every time Berlusconi seems to lose control of his majority but they lack a popular leader. The political message underlying this scenario will be of moderation and Berlusconi’s scaremongering is considered by them to be extreme.

Any successor, including from Berlusconi’s own ranks, will likely renege on his confrontational style and particularly his references to “communism.” Even the ferociously populist Northern League, which built most of its success on anti-immigrants and anti-Southern Italy tirades, does not generally invoke Cold War divisions. On the contrary, a portion of its working class voters are former Communist sympathizers. While the Northern League uses rhetorical weapons even more vitriolic than those of Il Cavaliere, it is not rooted in those ideological diatribes that have frozen the political scenario for years.

A century and a half of (dis)unity?

Italy faces daunting challenges in the coming years, many of which are structural. There are few signs that the current leaders of the opposition or the other rightwing politicians may find successful solutions. A generational change in leadership is urgently needed. The Cold War categories have a fertile ground in a country where leaders over seventy dominate politics, business and academia. It is only when these dinosaurs give way to younger leaders that Italy can begin to confront the mounting problems it faces.

Without that change, other conflicts are inevitable. The North-South gap and illegal immigration threaten to divide the country again. Youths in Italy’s southern neighbor, Tunisia, have rebelled against corruption, political repression and a 25% youth unemployment rate. To put things in perspective, Italy’s equivalent figure is 29%.

There is no certainty that a political system without Berlusconi will deliver prosperity and stability. Ironically, he has headed the longest-serving governments in Italian history. But in the year where their country celebrates 150 years of unity, Italians deserve to leave behind past divisions and the would-be modernizer who has ended up as a relic of the last century.

In Italy, the time has come for historians to debate the Cold War and for the referee to blow the final whistle.


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