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Italian Purple People Protest Berlusconi the Bombastic

• April 15, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Tens of thousands of ‘Purple People’ — named after the traditional color of Italian mourning — march in Rome to protest a legendarily bombastic, allegedly corrupt prime minister. Is the country finally ready to say basta?

On a crisp, sunlit winter morning, Via Del Corso — the main street that cuts a straight line through the tangled alleys and piazzas of the historic center of Rome — has ground to a halt. Its two lanes are clogged with a long line of bright yellow double-decker tourist buses, inching along with horns blaring. They stretch for half a kilometer back to the domineering Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, built in the early 1900s in honor of the first king of a unified Italy and known to locals — with a small sigh and an eye-roll toward its conspicuous lack of understatement — as Il Vittoriano.

A phalanx of blue police vans blocks the boulevard ahead, and cops in deep rows have already pulled down their clear plastic visors and put up their riot shields. As wide-eyed tourists look on, unsure whether to walk quickly in the other direction or stay and snap photos, the stalled buses begin emptying and hundreds of men and women — nearly all of them wearing hard hats — flood the street. Chanting through megaphones, waving banners, wearing flags as capes and drumming on any hard surface available, the protesters begin a booming march to the Palazzo Chigi, the 16th-century building that houses the office of the Italian prime minister.

The protesters are workers from two Alcoa aluminum plants, one near Venice and the other on the island of Sardinia (hence the hard hats and preponderance of white, black and red Sardinian flags, with their bandaged-head symbols). The plants are due to close in the coming weeks after a European Commission ruling that Alcoa must repay hundreds of millions of dollars in electricity subsidies it has received from the Italian government. Trade unions and the center-right government have scheduled talks, but for the rest of the day and night, the nearly 1,000 protesters stage a loud but never-violent sit-in, building bonfires in the piazza when the nighttime temperature plunges. Asked what, exactly, he is protesting, one worker lowers his face scarf to give one of those small sighs and an eye-roll more typically reserved for the architectural monstrosity across town.

“Berlusconi,” he says simply.

The charismatic, bombastic, allegedly corrupt prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, was not in his office that night; he was in Israel on an official state visit. But in the weeks since that first large-scale demonstration of the new decade, the streets of Rome have seen tens of thousands of protesters marching, mostly peaceably, under the watchful eyes of riot police. Specific agendas drive particular protests, but the end target remains the same: Berlusconi. Facing crucial and controversial regional elections at the end of March, in the midst of several high-profile scandals swirling around him (including alleged mafia collusion and supposed affairs with prostitutes) and on trial for two unrelated charges (bribery and tax fraud), the 73-year-old Berlusconi is fighting for his political life and vision of Italy’s future like never before.

And that’s really saying something.

Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in 1994, as Italy emerged from a series of bribery scandals that effectively undermined the authority of the established parties. In their place, prominent individuals began to shape and drive policy, and there was no more recognizable figure than the billionaire Berlusconi, who owned the influential television network Mediaset and the country’s most celebrated soccer team, A.C. Milan (and, yes, he still owns both). The media tycoon flooded Italian television screens with an infomercial announcing the formation of his new party, Forza Italia (or “Forward, Italy,” traditionally a soccer slogan) and launched an ad campaign aimed directly at the people. As the University of Bologna‘s Donatella Campus puts it: “Berlusconi transformed the scenario of Italian politics by applying the techniques of political marketing to an electoral campaign in a systematic way for the first time. In particular, he used benchmarking polls to segment and target the electorate, orchestrated a massive advertising campaign and articulated his message in a clear and understandable way, very different from the ‘political jargon’ (politichese) used by Italian political elite.”

The richest man in Italy swept to victory after whipping up a true media storm — and not just among his own stations, which attract more than half of the nation’s viewing audience, but even those traditionally allied with leftist causes. Although a political outsider, Berlusconi was already a huge celebrity before he ran, and he used his own television outlets to set a populist agenda that the rest of the media would have to follow. “Berlusconi proposed a mix of free-market ideology and the American dream,” Campus wrote in a recent issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics. “Introducing himself as the man who had reached the greatest personal success through his own abilities and hard work, Berlusconi incarnated a message of hope and asked the Italian people to entrust him with the realization of their dreams.”

Along the way, political parties became even less relevant, and Berlusconi relied on his personal charisma to inspire voters. In 2001, he went on a popular television show and dramatically signed a lined piece of legal paper called the “Contract with the Italian People.” The Newt Gingrich-style document contained five pledges, including reducing taxes and boosting pensions, and Berlusconi vowed that if he did not fulfill at least four of the five promises (which he didn’t), he would not seek re-election (which he did). These stunts “opened the door to new political actors and movements that built their ascendancy on a public arena that was emptied of partisan attachments,” Columbia University political scientist Nadia Urbinati notes. “Populism succeeded by making the citizenry an unqualified and undefined public of individual voters, with no party affiliation and loyalty.”

Indeed, Berlusconi eventually merged Forza Italia with the National Alliance to form a new party, the Popolo della Liberta, or “the People of Freedom.” The new entity was announced as part of a typical bit of Berlusconi theater, during an off-the-cuff speech from the running board of a car in a Milan square in November 2007. This followed a bruising election in 2006 that saw Romano Prodi, a former prime minister with no established party of his own, create a center-left coalition that narrowly edged out Berlusconi and his allies.

Though on the sidelines temporarily, Berlusconi and his media empire still drove Italian politics. Only seven months into his tenure, unable to keep his shaky coalition together, Prodi — nicknamed “Valium” for his low-key manner — faced a confidence vote in both houses of Parliament. He passed through the storm, but a year later, in January 2008, Prodi lost the Senate’s support. In the elections that followed the government’s collapse in April, the re-branded right-wing coalition defeated the Democratic Party. Berlusconi was again prime minister.

Italians’ fascination with Berlusconi, many political analysts contend, stems from the fact that he embodies a certain self-made (and self-satisfied) ideal. Alexander Stille, in his best-seller Citizen Berlusconi, compared his use of down-home language and frequent gaffes to the younger President Bush (a good friend of Berlusconi’s, by all accounts). Stille also attributed Berlusconi’s rise to a very American style of media manipulation and understanding of the electorate, wherein the outsider politician can achieve iconic status. “The politics of antipolitics has generated a proliferation of new and curious hybrid figures: the actor politician (Reagan, Schwarzenegger), the millionaire-politician (Perot, Bloomberg, Corzine, Forbes) and even the fighter-politician (Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura),” Stille wrote. “Berlusconi is a combination of all these figures: entertainer, celebrity, millionaire and media magnate.”

About those gaffes: They are numerous and have been a constant during Berlusconi’s time in power. To summarize, he once compared a German member of the European Parliament to a kapo, or Nazi concentration camp guard, which cooled German-Italian relations for a while; he suggested that the Danish prime minister was attractive and should have an affair with his then-wife, the long-suffering former actress Veronica Lario; and he told the editor of Spectator magazine that Mussolini had been a benign dictator because he did not murder his political foes but sent them “on holiday” — meaning into exile. He called the newly elected President Obama “young, handsome and even tanned.” At an awards dinner in January 2007, Berlusconi told a former showgirl — who now happens to be his minister of Equal Opportunities — that, “If I wasn’t already married, I would marry you right away.” Lario finally tired of the act and filed for divorce last year, asking for $5 million a month, claiming her husband slept with prostitutes and “frequents minors,” which Berlusconi denied. “I have never understood what satisfaction there is if not in the pleasure of conquest,” he said at the time. When a recorded conversation with an escort later popped up online, he responded: “I am not a saint.”

No, but he’s been hit by a cathedral. In December of last year, as his popularity dipped to new lows in the wake of several scandals, Berlusconi was struck by a small statue of Milan’s Duomo thrown at him during a rally. His face bloodied, the prime minister tried to continue his address but had to spend the night in a hospital. When he re-emerged in public life earlier this year with no signs of his injury, his poll numbers were creeping back up again.

In July 2008, Silvio Berlusconi told a G8 press conference in Japan: “I’m the universal record-holder for the number of trials in the entire history of man — and also of other creatures who live on other planets.” For once, he wasn’t exaggerating. By his own count, as detailed in a speech to shopkeepers last year (which was met with boos and whistles when he called the judiciary a “cancerous growth”), from 1994 to 2006 he was scrutinized by “789 prosecutors and magistrates,” visited by the police 577 times and a party to 2,500 court hearings. He also claims to have paid 174 million euros (or some $237 million) in lawyer fees.

Berlusconi and his companies have been accused of mafia dealings, false accounting, corruption, tax fraud, bribing judges and buying the police. But he has never been convicted. The Italian judiciary is a complex and slow system, and members of parliament have both defended and prosecuted their prime minister. Some of his cases have been dropped because the statute of limitations, which continues to run during trials, has expired; some he has won on appeal; and most controversially, sometimes the Berlusconi-backed parliament simply changes the law, mid-trial.

In 2008, for instance, the Senate approved halting criminal trials against Italy’s top four elected officials while they were in office (a law that has since been declared unconstitutional). “Citizens have the right to know if their prime minister is or isn’t a criminal,” was the futile lament of center-left legislator and former anti-corruption magistrate Antonio Di Pietro. Or as journalist Marco Travaglio of the recently founded anti-Berlusconi newspaper Fatto Quotidiano put it, “In other democracies, if a magistrate puts a politician on trial, the politician resigns. In Italy it’s either the trial itself or the judge that disappears.”

The opposition has long maintained that Berlusconi entered politics in the first place to protect himself from prosecution and his companies from bankruptcy. Now there are signs that the judiciary is finally fed up with the delaying tactics and legislative meddling.

In January, only a few days after the Alcoa demonstration, hundreds of black-robed judges walked out of their courts in Rome, holding up copies of the Italian constitution. The nearly unanimous demonstration was supported by the National Association of Magistrates, causing Berlusconi to say there was a “subversive aim” to bring him down. “We are in the hands of this band of Taliban,” he said of magistrates, a jibe that prompted Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, to admonish Berlusconi and accuse him of creating “dangerous tensions between Italy’s institutions.”

Despite the heated rhetoric, the country’s top court recently threw out a case against David Mills, a British lawyer charged with taking bribes from Berlusconi, because the statute of limitations ran out. The court also suspended the Mills-related bribery trial of Berlusconi, pushing it to late March. Nevertheless, Berlusconi, who is also on trial for tax fraud in a separate case, complained about being hounded by “communist” magistrates. This comes against the backdrop of a prominent Berlusconi business associate and a People of Freedom senator both being linked by Italian police to a mafia-run money laundering ring; indeed, allegations of mafia collusion against Berlusconi and his supporters, while strenuously denied, have been almost constant since his entry into the political arena.

Recent criticism of Berlusconi was aimed at his slate of candidates for the important March regional elections. They included a former weathergirl from one of Berlusconi’s TV stations; a showgirl-turned-dental hygienist; a former Miss Italy finalist; and a physiotherapist who has worked at A.C. Milan soccer club. One member of the People of Freedom party, Aldo Brandirali, was moved to publicly question his leader’s selections, saying: “We need more seriousness.”

As the weather warms and the elections draw closer, thousands of Romans have dubbed themselves Il Popolo Viola, or “the Purple People,” and haven taken to the streets to organize “No Berlusconi” days. Organized through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, the Purple People carry copies of the Italian Constitution and wave banners reading “Basta!” (“Enough!”) or “The Law is the Same for Everyone.” Purple is the traditional color of mourning in Italy, and opposition parties have endorsed the protests, sensing that the key to toppling Berlusconi’s cult of personality is targeting the personality himself.

On a recent Saturday, the ancient Piazza di Popolo was filled with teeming, chanting, purple-cloaked demonstrators, many of them wearing cartoonish Berlusconi masks or black-and-white prison jumpsuits. Helicopters hovered, the police watched cautiously but did not interfere, and the crowd roared when Angelo Bonelli, head of Italy’s Green party, said: “Today, the real Taliban is Berlusconi who wants to tie the hands of the magistrates.”

The crowd numbered in the tens of thousands and provided an unusual contrast with a scene a few mornings later in front of the Michelangelo-designed Palazzo Farnese, now home to the French Embassy. A huge stage, which would not have been out of place at a rock concert, had been erected in the empty square, with glaring lights and cameras trained on one of Berlusconi’s candidates for the local election. Green bunting with the People of Freedom logo — now including Berlusconi’s name — was draped along the rear and sides of the stage, and the speaker’s voice boomed through an amplification system that could be heard for blocks around.

And it’s a good thing, too, because the only people in front of the stage were members of the crew that had set it up, leaning on the railing as Romans hurriedly brushed past the bored police officers ringing the square. But then again, the scene will probably look better on television.

Matt Palmquist
A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Matt Palmquist, a former Miller-McCune staff writer, began his career at daily newspapers such as The Oregonian and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2001, he became a staff writer at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, where he won several local and national awards. He also wrote a humorous current affairs column called "The Apologist," which he continued upon leaving the Weekly and beginning a freelance career.

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