ROME, Italy — Just a few steps from majestic Piazza Navona in the Italian capital stands the ivy-covered facade of the luxury Hotel Raphael.
In the early 1990s, this was the Roman home of former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who was under investigation for bribery and corruption. As the trial came to a head, he emerged from the hotel on the afternoon of April 30, 1993, to a crowd of protesters who pelted him with coins and waved banknotes in the air shouting, “Craxi! Do you want even these?”
Nearly two decades later, it's easy to overlook Craxi, who was prime minister for four years in the 1980s. But he was probably Italy’s most polarizing modern political leader — at least until Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Berlusconi’s antics are well documented. A billionaire media tycoon, he owns three of the country’s seven national broadcast networks and as prime minister he indirectly controls the three state-run networks, giving him a virtual stranglehold over the country’s television media.
As prime minister, the 74-year-old Berlusconi has pushed through judicial and political reforms that have helped him escape prosecution on criminal or civil charges 17 times in as many years. Currently, he is being tried in three separate cases for, among other crimes, tax evasion, financial kickbacks, influence peddling, abuse of power and having paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan cabaret dancer who goes by the name “Ruby the Heart Robber.”
Despite all that, and notwithstanding an announcement Wednesday that he could voluntarily step away from politics in 2013, political commentators say that Berlusconi will likely manage to hold onto power for the foreseeable future. To understand his hold on the strings of power in Italy — and what the future may hold for him — it is important to understand Craxi, Berlusconi's political godfather.
For more than a decade, the names Craxi and Berlusconi were intertwined. They had no official ties, but the two were known to look out for each other’s interests — Craxi in the political realm, Berlusconi in the private sector.
It was during Craxi’s government, for example, that Berlusconi’s Mediaset broadcast empire began to flourish — in part because of the three "Berlusconi decrees" pushed through by Craxi allies in 1984 and 1985 to remove political obstacles to his business interests. In return, Mediaset’s networks were decidedly pro-Craxi. Craxi was seen as Berlusconi’s protector within the Italian government, and Berlusconi’s decision to move into politics in 1994 was no doubt predicated by Craxi’s fall from power in the preceding months.
“There are absolute parallels between these two men, and on many levels,” said Franco Pavoncello, president of Rome’s John Cabot University and a frequent commentator on political issues. “The parallels are not perfect, but they are important.”
Pavoncello said that a fundamental difference between the two men was that while Craxi was a product of the Italian political machine, Berlusconi emerged from the private sector, where he had made billions building Europe’s largest media empire.
Still, once in power, they each reformed the political situation they found: Craxi became the centerpiece of the storied Italian Socialist Party; Berlusconi created his own political movement with himself at its heart. In their personal lives, both enjoyed the attentions of scores of beautiful young women — though as Arianna Montanari, a professor of the sociology of politics at Rome’s Sapienza University said, Craxi was more discrete. “He frequented a different class of woman that would have never embarrassed him as Ruby has embarrassed Berlusconi,” she said.
Soon after each reached the pinnacle of his political power, they became engulfed in scandal they both blamed on what each man said was an activist Milan judiciary. The “Tangentopoli” (Italian for “Bribe-ville”) scandal that eventually felled Craxi was at once endemic and also limited to the public sector, while Berlusconi’s alleged foibles extend to his personal life and media empire. The two scandals remain the most serious of post-war Italian politics.
“Tangentopoli probably seems worse than the scandal around Berlusconi, but that’s probably because Tangentopoli came first,” said Paolo Posteraro, author of the book “The Worst Years of Our Lives: From Craxi to Berlusconi.” “Now I think our senses are deadened to these things. Our expectations are now much lower. In a way, Craxi paved the way for Berlusconi because he dulled our senses for corruption.”
By far, the biggest difference between the men is that Craxi was convicted. So far, despite the 17 previous criminal or civil trials Berlusconi has escaped that fate.
Back in 1993, Craxi’s defense boiled down to an admission of guilt qualified by an insistence that he was being singled out for acting no different than any other political figure of the time. In stark contrast, Berlusconi has never admitted wrongdoing in any of his cases. In previous trials, he escaped prosecution because the statute of limitations ran out, because the judges were found guilty of conflicts of interest, because the charges were dismissed, because of technical flaws in the prosecution’s case, or, in at least one case, because key evidence mysteriously disappeared.
Despite Berlusconi’s track record of avoiding prosecution, many in Italy believe the case involving Ruby, the underage dancer, may prove to be Berlusconi’s undoing — either because the case against him is so strong that he will not be able to wiggle free (the main charge is abuse of power: it is well documented that he lied to law enforcement to help get Ruby off the hook when she was picked up for shoplifting), or because the embarrassment of the trial (that is where the secondary charges of paying a minor for sex play a role) will make it impossible for him to command a political coalition.
When the Italian political establishment crumbled in Italy after Tangentopoli, it left a political vacuum that helped give rise to Berlusconi — a figure nobody could have imagined in politics just a year before he first slipped on the prime minister’s sash. As scandal engulfed him in the past year, he has held onto power because he has no serious political rivals. The opposition parties remain divided, former allies that have abandoned his coalition have failed to gain traction, and over the years he has methodically eviscerated any potential threats within his own party.
If Berlusconi falls, it will clearly create another political vacuum. But if we want to speculate not about Italian politics after Berlusconi’s fall, but about what might happen to Berlusconi, then perhaps Craxi’s final act may provide a last lesson.
Within a year of being showered in coins outside the Hotel Raphael, the newly convicted Craxi boarded a flight to leave Italy forever, fleeing to a vacation villa he owned in Tunisia rather than face jail time. (Terminally ill in late 1999, Craxi begged the Italian government and his former protege, Berlusconi, then between his first two tenures as prime minister, for help in obtaining a pardon so he could return to Italy to die. They refused.)
With Berlusconi’s hopes of retiring from politics to take on the largely symbolic and dignified role of Italy’s president (the office plays the same role as the king in many European countries) almost surely ruined by the embarrassing allegations swirling around him, whispers among political insiders in Italy are that if faced with a prison term, Berlusconi, who will be 75 in September, could similarly flee the country.
Where to? The most likely place, according to people in the know, is Antigua, where Berlusconi already owns a $29 million cliff-side villa and where, according to Italian news reports, Antiguan-European extradition treaties only apply for capital crimes — one of the few things Berlusconi has not been accused of.