Defending Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

To the endless exasperation of foreign commentators, a consistent majority of Italian voters continues to ignore their rebukes and warnings about Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. However bizarre his public pronouncements and however non-PC his private life, Italians still prefer this leathery 73-year-old Lothario to anyone else on the political scene.

As strange as this preference seems to outsiders, there are several very Italian reasons for Berlusconi's ongoing hold on politics at home. For a start, Italian politicians have a long tradition of concealing their private lives and underhanded deals from voters. As a result, people rarely know what they are voting for. Prior to 1993 (the start of the Berlusconi era) revolving-door coalitions endlessly changed their parts, and since then the weakness of the left has made for ambiguities in its policies (save its opposition to Berlusconi). With him, at least what you see is what you get. Indeed, you might say his greatest virtue is that his vices are so clearly and unabashedly on display.

While his adversaries may disdain the prime minister's tacky public persona (the garish outfits, the bimbo eruptions, the tactless remarks about other world leaders) and his tiresome self-glorification (the man has compared himself to both Napoleon and Jesus), Italian voters have, in three general elections, chosen the devil they know over his dull and plodding opponents on the left.

It's not just for his showmanship; Italians also appreciate his hard work as a retail politician and electoral strategist. Berlusconi has not only made his business-friendly, antibureaucracy agenda commendably clear in a country where party manifestoes do not exist, but has also cobbled together an effective coalition of disparate, sometimes hostile, elements on the center-right. No other conservative politician has had the patience, the guile, or the charisma to do the same. And this ability to hold a coalition together has paid off. Berlusconi is the only postwar Italian premier to have served a full five-year term. That's not just a record; it has also contributed to Italy's stability and coherence.

This helps explain why, despite a sustained summer campaign by the left-leaning media (which include three out of Italy's top four daily newspapers, one of its two leading newsmagazines, and two of its seven national TV channels) to expose his alleged cavorting with call girls and underage starlets, most Italians, according to polls, have decided they don't care and continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It also helps explain Italians' ongoing willingness to tolerate his other flaws. Yes, he attempts to muzzle his opponents and highlight his achievements through the media--including the three channels he owns, the state-owned channels he controls, and his daily newspaper and weekly newsmagazine—in a crass and shortsighted way. But in this he is merely following a well-trodden Italian tradition. Examine past footage run by the state-owned RAI channels when the left was in power, and you'll see a very similar pattern.

What about charges that Berlusconi played fast and loose with the law when he was building his business empire, and his efforts as a prime minister to shorten the statute of limitations and grant himself immunity against those charges (an amnesty the Constitutional Court just spectacularly overturned)? The immunity itself was not so unusual; many other European democracies grant it to their leaders while in office. Yes, it's possible that the prime minister has cut some legal corners. But his frequent complaints that Italy's magistrates (a highly politicized and overwhelmingly leftist bunch) have it in for him are not entirely unreasonable. Any detached observation of the time certain crusading judges spend chasing him, and the little attention they seem to give to his many former business rivals, is enough to convince many ordinary Italians that something fishy is going on.

And thus they continue to endorse Berlusconi, who makes it clear where he stands and is commendably straightforward in his wily ways. A divisive, polarizing figure is not necessarily a bad thing in a country where political parties have traditionally done their deals behind closed doors. If Italy's judges now succeed in bringing him down, they will pit themselves against at least half of the Italian electorate. And a constitutional struggle is the last thing crisis-stricken Italy needs.