Tuesday, 15 December 2009

After Berlusconi attack, Italy on dangerous road

It was the projectile cathedral-smack heard ‘round the world. Sunday night’s attack on Silvio Berlusconi in Milan almost immediately started generating so much internet snark and celebration that the facts quickly became clouded. First reports said he was punched – a light enough incident for the internets to make light of the situation. Then it emerged he had been hit with an object and had been seriously hurt – slightly less jovial. Then the facts just turned bizarre – a crazed man had thrown a miniature replica of the Milan Cathedral from the crowd, and managed to hit the Italian prime minister right in the mouth.

The news about Silvio Berlusconi over the past year already seemed like it had reached the height of bizarre absurdity, but this took the cake. The philandering Italian tyrant everyone outside of Italy loves to hate seemingly given a “taste of poetic justice” by being smacked in the face by a symbol of the very conservative values he has exploited to maintain his grip on power. Almost overnight the deranged man who allegedly threw the church, Massimo Tartaglia, attracted thousands of fans on Facebook.

The attack fits in perfectly with the persecution narrative the Italian prime minister has built around himself. This victim image was being hammed up to levels worthy of the worst Italian B-movie earlier today as Berlusconi whispered from his hospital bed, "love will always truimph!" All he was missing was a crown of thorns.

But over the past few days developments in Italy have made it clear this is far from just a weird quirky sideshow. The prime minister is still in the hospital, he’s apparently lost a large amount of blood as well as teeth. His allies almost immediately began blaming the incident on Berlusconi’s political enemies, saying they had fanned a “climate of hate” against him that had led to this incident. The right-wing daily Il Giornal accused the left of “remote-controlling” the demonstrations against Berlusconi that culminated 5 December in nationwide protests against him. Though those protests have been mostly peaceful, Berlusconi’s allies are using the Tartaglia attack to paint them as violent.

Berlusconi’s Freedom party announced yesterday they are beginning proceedings to charge opposition MP Antonio Di Pietro, one of Berlusconi’s most vocal critics, with “incitement to crime.” Home Secretary Roberto Maroni told papers this morning the government is planning to table emergency measures to ban all Italian websites that have been openly cheering the Tartaglia attack. Italy’s biggest daily newspaper Corriere della Sera this morning called for people on the internet who have cheered the attack to also be charged with incitement to crime.

We’ve seen this movie before. Right-wing governments often use attacks against themselves to justify harsh crackdowns on domestic opposition at home. But the political situation in Italy was already so unstable that this attack could make the whole country go off the rails.

By all accounts Berlusconi’s governing coalition was already on the verge of collapse in the weeks leading up to this incident, amidst the most fractious political environment seen in Italy since the chaotic political violence that rocked the country in the 1970’s. The continuing sex scandals surrounding Berlusconi, as well as the recent decision by an Italian court to strip him of the prosecutorial immunity he had granted himself, had put the prime minister on very shaky ground. More importantly, rifts within his right-wing coalition government had bubbled to the surface in recent weeks. Last week one of his closet allies, Gianfranco Fini, gave an indication that he would leave the coalition – and a former centrist partner of Berlusconi’s was calling for a grand coalition to finally oust him from power.

But Sunday night everything changed. One by one the members of Berlusconi’s coalition who had been threatening to abandon him came to the hospital to show their solidarity. Even the opposition MPs were forced to come to his bedside to show they don’t condone violence.

After a year of being politically battered by scandal, legal troubles and infighting, it may be Berlusconi’s physical injuries that will now give him political strength. But given that he is coming from such a weak position, he will need to aggressively exploit this attack against him in order to regain his footing. Few observers of Italian politics would doubt his resolve to do this. But that aggressive climb-back will be brutal, and it could tear an already fragile country apart. It is not for nothing that Italians fear a return to the violent “days of lead” of the 1970s.

In a few months, with hindsight, it will probably not be the Italian left cheering Sunday night’s attack. The cheers may be coming from Berlusconi himself.

1 comment:

leonjwilliams said...

I hope this vile man (Berlusconi) does not benefit in any way shape or form from this incident.
I completely agree with your post, especially the first paragraph.