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
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. Italy
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
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. Italy
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
was already so unstable that this attack could make the whole country go off the rails. Italy
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.