Even With Berlusconi in Jail, Sexism Would Still Thrive in Italian Politics


Former Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi is in trouble. In 2010 Berlusconi was caught hosting the famous "bunga bunga" parties at his villa in Arcore, enjoying the company of more than 20 underage prostitutes over a long series of nights. One of these nights Ruby Rubacuori, a Moroccan escort who was under 18 at the time, was arrested by Milan's police. Berlusconi called into the police station to force the officers to release her under a fabricated diplomatic rationale.

By that time, Berlusconi was also involved in the "Mediaset Trial," named after his colossal television company. The trial had been going on for several years and did not produce a verdict until earlier this year. 

This summer the sentences for this last legal proceeding have been deliberated, and the former PM is now experiencing an apparent downfall.

For the time being, Berlusconi is likely to be removed from Italy’s institutional life. He has been expelled from the Senate and a week from now, Milan’s Court of Appeals will have to determine the length of his interdiction from public office. Yet Berlusconi will be anything but removed from Italian politics as a whole, and so his personal defeat means little for Italy’s sexist political culture.  

Berlusconi was sentenced to four years (which were eventually reduced to one under a law aimed at reducing prison overcrowding) at the end of his eight-year-old Mediaset trial, which found his television channels guilty of fraudulent fiscal activities. Berlusconi, 77, recently submitted a request to comply with the sentence through community service, as in most cases over 75 years of age are allowed to waive prison sentences. By the end of the week, Milan’s Court of Appeals will have to determine for how long Berlusconi will be barred from public office.

Berlusconi’s legal defeats were accompanied by stunning political defeats. Two weeks ago, Berlusconi threatened to withdraw his party’s support for Enrico Letta’s moderate coalition government, which includes both Berlusconi’s People of Freedom center-right party and the center-left Democratic Party. This followed tensions between Berlusconi and Letta, who was being increasingly uncompromising towards Berlusconi’s loyalists. Surprisingly, Vice Prime Minister and longtime right-wing loyalist Angelino Alfano decided to challenge Berlusconi’s threats by announcing his continued support for the government, leading to a split in the center-right and a last-minute white flag for Berlusconi himself, who was forced to submit his vote of confidence for the government.

Yet another media stunt by Berlusconi following his vote of confidence for Letta's government.

As of now, the government still stands, Berlusconi is bound to be removed from public office for the foreseeable future, and his party is at war with itself. Yet, things are all but over. Berlusconi remains one of the most popular Italian political figures, retaining 28% personal support among the Italian electorate immediately after his August sentence.

Moreover, this political defeat has little or nothing to do with sexism.

While Berlusconi was also put to trial for his notorious "bunga bunga" affair, for which he was initially condemned to seven years along with a ban on seeking public office this June, his trial will likely go on for the next couple years before reaching a definitive verdict. Berlusconi was charged with malfeasance in office and underage prostitution incitement after hosting underage escorts at his house parties at Arcore, outside Milan. However, this is a strictly legal issue, and has little effect on his public appeal.

His current defeats are being caused by the delayed issuance of sentences, complicating his grip on his position as senator, rather than by a decrease in popularity. As of now, even after the internal political crisis in his party, the People of Freedom retains just under 24% of public votes even though Berlusconi’s personal appeal has sunk to 18% since August.  In a multi-party system like Italy, these numbers are largely sufficient to play a substantial role in politics.

Sexism in Italian politics has not suffered a hit because of Berlusconi’s defeat, which was guided by legal and political failures. Berlusconi is likely to still be able to have incredible electoral power if elections are to be held in the foreseeable future, which is almost always the case in the Italian political system.

While emerging leaders like Matteo Renzi in the center-left are likely to be able to take many votes away from the long-time right wing leader, Berlusconi is likely the most skillful election-time politician in modern Italian history. A combination of out-of-the box announcements, smart jokes, and anti-communist rhetoric proved themselves still effective as of the last election, when Berlusconi’s party gained over 15% support over a two-month timespan.

For sexism and machismo to leave Italian politics will require a generational shift and a cultural transition. Political leaders like Berlusconi have only slowed down progress on this front, revolutionizing historically centrist, static, and bureaucratic Italian politics into a political circus filled with illusions, jokes, and discrimination.