Can Meloni learn from Berlusconi’s failures?

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If Giorgia Meloni had expected a direct passage to become Italy’s first female prime minister, she had not counted on the persistent desire for control of her coalition ally Silvio Berlusconi. Italy’s three-time prime minister began undermining his far-right government even before his ministers were appointed. But Meloni also has something to learn from Berlusconi. It provides a cautionary tale to all populists about how quickly their promise of change can become rancid through recklessness and corruption.

Berlusconi, who is celebrating 28 years in frontline politics, is the epitome of the modern populist. He is the model for personalities from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, and Meloni herself. He celebrated his return to the Italian Senate nine years after being expelled for a tax evasion conviction by attacking Meloni, the new leader of their coalition after the Brothers of Italy party she co-founded won far more votes than Berlusconi or Matteo Salvini’s League. last month.

Clearly stung by her waning political influence, he personally attacked Meloni, describing her as “smug, bossy, arrogant and ridiculous” in memos to his party’s supporters that were leaked to the media. He then undermined his authority by getting closer to his former pal Vladimir Putin. In a 48-hour show of self-aggrandizement, he questioned his positioning as a responsible member of the European Union and his pro-Ukrainian policies against Putin – and, ultimately, his government’s longevity. Last weekend, as Meloni traveled to President Sergio Mattarella to get his formal green light to form a government, senior bankers told me they expected it to last no more than six at nine months.

The sight of Berlusconi, 86, permanently tanned and botoxed, rekindling a bromance with Putin and seeking to assert his will over Meloni, 45, revealed that he was still, unequivocally, unfit for office. But the arc of his extraordinary and abysmal political career holds lessons for new leaders.

It is instructive to remember that when Berlusconi burst onto the political scene, his millions of supporters believed that his novelty and entrepreneurial audacity would reform Italy’s ossified economy. Instead, his preoccupation with personal profit for his own business, his corruption and sexual antics, his desire to be liked by the electorate made him unable to speak hard truths and apply his popularity to the Politics. In the end, Berlusconi’s promise died in a bonfire of vanities, and the Italian economy continued to decline.

A recap of Berlusconi’s failures is worth recounting as his political progeny populate governments around the world.

His most sensational transgression was the sinister saga of his sex parties, which made “bunga-bunga” a term of derision heard around the world. A conviction for paying to have sex with a minor was overturned on appeal. Yet the shameful sight of a prime minister on trial in Milan has tarnished not only Berlusconi’s reputation, but Italy’s as well. Berlusconi’s fraud and tax trials resulted in convictions that were later overturned and then statutorily expired five times, undermining the rule of law in the country which already had a fragile reputation with foreign investors.

But its greatest failing has been doing virtually nothing to stem Italy’s declining economic competitiveness and growing debt load. It has been left to successive technocratic prime ministers, most recently Mario Draghi, to try too late to implement reforms. Instead, Berlusconi used his enormous political power and influence to help his private Mediaset media empire and add to his family’s wealth by rewriting media and competition laws. The 2004 Gasparri law relaxed antitrust rules to allow Berlusconi to become the main owner of private media through television, print and advertising. Surprisingly, the same senator behind this bill, Maurizio Gasparri, presented a proposed civil code amendment this month that could pave the way for abortions to be classified as murder, a key objective of the new government. from the right of Meloni.

Despite everything, Berlusconi remains. Winning 8% of the vote in last month’s election put him in the position of kingmaker. This is because it is also true that he created the survival plan of the modern populist. A malleable media apparatus helped create the Berlusconi mythos and then helped maintain it. And the old dogs stick to the old stuff. Strikingly, part of Berlusconi’s argument with Meloni was his desire to have one of his own in the justice ministry – not coincidentally at a time when he faces new corruption trials .

The other secret of his success is the unshakable nativist base on which he relied. His Forza Italia! The party’s vision (Come on, Italy!) promised an Italy full of easy economic (and sexual) success, and a laissez-faire government where the “other” demonized (in Berlusconi’s case, the communists and magistrates) was to blame for all the problems of the Italians.

Meloni knows Berlusconi’s playbook. The electoral success of his Italian Brotherhood party owes much to Berlusconi’s use of media and nativist power. Its success comes after a skillful law and order campaign against threats against the “natural family” and the so-called LGBTQ+ lobby. She also keeps power in the family, entrusting a key ministry of agriculture and food sovereignty to her brother-in-law. But as she forms a government, it’s time she also heeded Berlusconi’s failures. Especially the damage he has done – and still can do – by taking care of himself.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Meloni’s Ship of State Heads for Troubled Waters: Rachel Sanderson

• Italy may find November is cruelest month: Marcus Ashworth

• Meloni will continue to play with Salvini. Wait: Maria Tadeo

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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