If President Obama thinks he has it tough, he should try being Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for a week. In the private sector, with his media company Mediaset and other businesses, he’s the Italian equivalent of Rupert Murdoch. And it’s hard to imagine Murdoch ever wanting to annoy himself to the point of exposing his personal life and business dealings to constant public scrutiny. Every few months -- including this week -- the opposition subjects him to a confidence vote in parliament, despite having been elected by the people of Italy to govern until 2013.
For all the criticism leveled at Berlusconi, it’s doubtful that any American president would want his job. Or that, for all his perceived shenanigans, any of them would be capable of surviving in it as long as he has. Outside of Italy, we only usually hear about his skirt-chasing and off-color remarks. He referred to Barack Obama as “tanned”, and said to the press that he may like pretty girls but at least he isn’t gay. Such comments are always a treat to the clenched media, and reprinted as news because they can’t imagine the leader of their own country getting away with them. That’s usually the be-all and end-all of Berlusconi coverage. But the man is a true survivor and political genius. And here’s why:
1) The non-confidence vote isn’t necessarily related to his competence or lack thereof. Relative to other European countries – especially Greece and Ireland – Italy isn’t in horrible financial shape. Sure, they’re not doing great. But then neither is America, whose debt is leveraged by China. And next week, Berlusconi is set to pass a budget full of spending cuts. The opposition doesn’t have a problem with that, because they’re reportedly going to wait until AFTER the budget and cuts are passed before holding a non-confidence vote. In other parliamentary democracies, like Canada for example, a non-confidence vote is tied to a vote on an actual issue, usually a really important one like the budget. If only to make it clear to voters precisely how they deem their target incompetent. In Italy, they’re going to approve Berlusconi’s budget and vote in favor of his competence; then decide whether to get rid of him for murkier reasons.
2) Berlusconi has had to cobble together support from various coalition parties. This system requires constant communication and explanation of intention and positions, because it’s not just a simple matter of getting one’s party to vote in a bloc as is the case in America. Imagine if Barack Obama was never guaranteed enough votes to pass an initiative through Congress without having convinced several other parties to vote along with him. Imagine if he was at 28% like Berlusconi and he had to constantly scrape together enough support together to either pass his agenda or get re-elected.
3) No other world leader could survive having Silvio Berlusconi’s personal life. If Obama was caught partying with young women and escorts on a regular basis, with accounts leaking to the media and his wife publicly divorcing him because of it, he’d probably have a tough time getting re-elected. The difference between Bill Clinton and Berlusconi is that Clinton couldn’t have put forward the hot chicks he knew as ministerial and political candidates. To an extent this is a European phenomenon, or at least a Latin-European one since it’s hard to imagine anyone in Germany doing it, but even in France such things would never be public. France has privacy laws that establish rabid protection of one’s personal life. Nicolas Sarkozy could be having wild orgies at the Elysee Palace every night, as some former French presidents were indeed rumored to have done, and no media would mention it. The phenomenon dates back to WWII when some citizens of France snitched to the Vichy government about their Jewish neighbors and dire consequences ensued. Now any unauthorized intrusion into personal and private lives is strictly forbidden by law and culturally denounced. Berlusconi has survived despite his private life dangling out for all to see and comment on.
4) Berlusconi has put up with more investigations while in office than Sarah Palin ever did as Alaska's governor. It’s now a regular occurrence for the opposition to throw corruption charges at Berlusconi in relation to the companies he runs. He finally got so sick of it that he passed a law providing presidential immunity against such prosecutions while in office. He’s now faced with a “scandal” over the sheer audacity of the law, and a constitutional ruling on it. No one’s arguing that someone shouldn’t be held accountable for dodgy acts they commit while in office – but unless it’s related to some sort of gross political negligence worthy of impeachment, it can always be dealt with after they leave. The French example of ex-President Jacques Chirac facing a trial in March of next year for allegedly diverting City Hall funds to his party while Mayor of Paris in the mid-90s is an example of the fact that temporary presidential immunity doesn’t mean permanent escape.