«Sergio Fabbrini Sergio Fabbrini is Director of the School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the LUISS ...»
Those constraints were not sufficient, per sé, for neutralizing Silvio Berlusconi’s control of the parliamentary majority. Regardless of the reiterated personal scandals which negatively affected his reputation and the failure of the governmental policies in dealing with market speculation in Italian public bonds, nobody challenged the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi from within his party or parliamentary majority. Contrary to the British experience with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, nobody in the PDL could declare Silvio Berlusconi a liability for the party’s or parliamentary majority’s electoral future. Silvio Berlusconi continued to pursue his politics without policy to protect his hold on power. However, the deepening of the euro crisis and the ungovernable Italian public debt made that strategy untenable. In a monetary integrated euro-area, the personal disrepute of Berlusconi and the weakness of his government in terms of policy-making capabilities ended up as a threat to the financial stability of the other euro-area member states. A formidable pressure came thus to be exercised on the Italian government from outside the country to streamline its policies, a pressure that finally led to the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi and his government on 12 November 2012.
With the nomination of Mario Monti, a technocrat, as prime minister, and a Cabinet composed of university professors, bankers and high level public officials, policy had its revenge on politics, technical competence on media personalization. Indeed, the new prime minister has a very discrete private life, shies away from any personalization of his role, uses the media for conveying to the public the complexity of the problems the country has to face rather than to stress his role as the country’ savior. In sum, the Italian experience shows the inevitability of the personalization of politics at the electoral level, but also its structural limits when the personalized politics has to deal with the complexity of policy-making in highly institutionalized democracies and highly interdependent economies.
There is no doubt that television and new electoral technologies have personalized the electoral process, making the leader much more relevant than the party. However, in both Europe and the United States, personalization of the electoral process has met with significant difficulties in transforming itself into personalization of governmental power. To be sure, decision-making power in advanced democracies has been monopolized by the leaders of the executives (and a few influential ministers or secretaries such as those of Treasury and Foreign Affairs). However, once in government, the leaders have discovered that they have to operate in a context of political constraints and institutional checks and balances, a context which has generally precluded the transformation of established democracies into plebiscitary regimes.
In Italy, it took more time than in other countries, for these constraints, to become effective in limiting Silvio Berlusconi’s personalization of government. To be sure, his media power equipped him with enormous firepower to train on his adversaries both within and outside his majority and both within and outside Italy. But a crucial factor in his government’s survival was Berlusconi’s personal control of his party and parliamentary majority. Without a party or parliamentary majority relatively independent from its leader and worried about their electoral future, it is difficult to replace a prime minister who has performed unsatisfactorily with another leader from the same camp. Although the constraints on Silvio Berlusconi’s strategy to personalize the government continued to operate, nevertheless they could not have effect without the pressure coming from the financial market and EU institutions and leaders. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s political leadership is the outcome of a combination of domestic and especially European forces.
This outcome seems paradoxical. In fact, if in many countries the process of Europeanization is criticized for curtailing domestic democracies (decisions are taken far from national electorates within opaque institutions such as the European Council and without significant control by national parliaments), in Italy that very process was instrumental in neutralizing a strategy of personalization which was indeed curtailing domestic democracy. One might argue that Europeanization has become a vehicle for bringing policy back to politics, for checking the electoral logic with governmental needs. Thus, if it is true that the personalization of politics has become a characterizing feature of contemporary democracies, the Italian experience with Silvio Berlusconi shows that it is also true that the process of personalization is going to meet formidable constraints, both in the institutional systems of the various governments and in the complexity of the policy issues the holders of governmental power have to manage.
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