What’s better than offering your compatriots a chicken in every pot?
Silvio Berlusconi’s most recent promises. There’s almost nothing Berlusconi won’t offer the electorate this time around. For example: If elected as Italy’s prime minister (yet again…), Silvio, who happens to be very rich and tax-averse, said, “I will take four billion euros of my own fortune and give it to Italians.” That’s the amount Berlusconi believes his countrymen had to pay in stiff new property taxes last year.
Berlusconi uttered his personal tax refund declaration on television, and since he rose long ago from shipboard crooner to media magnate and now owns almost all Italian networks, you can bet word got around. Especially since Berlusconi also promised (surprise!!) a pardon for all tax evaders. There were many, many reasons for this assurance to the electorate, the prime one being that Berlusconi himself makes a habit of cheating the taxman. In fact he was convicted of it. So if he gets elected, he can pardon himself, among many, many others.
Bribing voters isn’t exactly a novel way of getting elected, but it might well be, especially in current circumstances, an effective one. Faced with a plethora of dubious politicians—the current prime minister, Mario Monti, author of that vastly unpopular new property tax; Pier Luigi Bersani (a center-left politician); Beppe Grillo (who happens to be a comedian, an intentional one); and Silvio, convicted of tax fraud and charged with all manner of other crimes, including sleeping with an underage prostitute and using his office to cover up the crime—Italian voters are, understandably, a bit confused on the issue of who would make a passable leader.
The answer is, more than likely, absolutely none of the above. Grillo, the comedian, who has a 1980 conviction on manslaughter, has of late dipped into a different form of voter-bribery: promising crowds that his people will cut working hours to 20 hours a week—which, between legally stipulated four-hour lunch breaks and legally mandated vacation eternities is about how long the average fully employed Italian south of Milano works in any case. Try getting your clothes out of a Roman drycleaner any day during the month of August, if you don’t believe me. Or getting your laptop fixed in December.
Come 2014, Italian unemployment will rise, small wonder, to 12 percent, and the European Union speculates that Italy’s gross domestic product will fall one percent this year—this on top of 2012 decline of more than 2 percent.
And what of Bersani, the moderate leftist who used to be a Communist? Well, Bersani is aping the French policies of François “Soak the Rich” Hollande. You might say, in fact, that Bersani, Hollande, and Monti are all paddling in much the same leaky boat—except that Monti decided to do François one better, by taxing the middle class and the poor with the same kind of rigor that Hollande now applies to the massive incomes of, say, peculiar French actors who prefer fleeing to Russia to paying up in Paris. Unlike Berlusconi, Monti and Bersani aren’t rogues. But they are plodding and charmless, the beneficiaries of mass disgust with the status quo rather than of personal approval, neither of them ever elected to Italy’s highest office.
So Berlusconi, for all his buffoonery and crimes, which many of his countrymen feel are no crimes at all, has a fair chance of returning to power. Or at least to public life. As the novelist Tim Parks wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, quoting Mussolini, “‘It is impossible to ignore reality … however sad.’ One wonders, as this election approaches, how near Italy is to the moment when denial is no longer possible.”
But denial is the essence of the Italian way of life. Always has been. Italy after all is a magical country, and in magic anything can be conjured. Even Berlusconi and his four billion euros.