Dal New York Times, scrive Richard Owen

Dal New York Times, scrive Richard Owen

There is a tendency, both in Italy and the world at large, to laugh off Silvio Berlusconi’s gaffes as merely “typical Silvio”.
Reactions range from a weary shake of the head – “here he goes again” – to frank admiration from those Italians who accept the idea that his coarse saloon bar humour makes him “one of us” despite his wealth and power.
When he first insulted Mr Obama last year by describing him as suntanned, Mr Berlusconi reacted to the uproar by saying his critics had no sense of humour. Some Italians cringed in embarrassment, but many of those who last year elected Mr Berlusconi to his third term agreed with him.
There is a streak of racism and xenophobia in Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition – hence the references in his remarks at his People of Freedom (PdL) rally in Milan not only to Mr Obama’s colour but also to the suspicion that he “only” read from autocues.
There is also male complicity in acceptance of Mr Berlusconi’s behaviour – reminiscent of Benito Mussolini – in womanising while claiming to promote family values.
But insulting Michelle Obama as well as the US President may prove a step too far. The buffoonish behaviour masks a more sinister reality: Mr Berlusconi clearly sees himself as a national and world leader of such importance that he is above the law.
To many outside Italy, the idea that Mr Berlusconi is a key global player who, for example, “helps” the US to deal with Moscow is risible. But it plays well domestically. His “gaffes” are often calculated to show that he has a direct rapport with the ordinary Italian.
But they mask an underlying arrogance and authoritarianism that convey the opposite message – that he is beyond normal rules of behaviour. No other leader mired in sex scandals would have dared make the hilarious claim, as he did in Milan, that he had “introduced morality” into Italian politics.
That he was not drowned in derision in part reflects his awesome media power. In any other Western country a man who controls the three main commercial TV channels could not possibly become Prime Minister.
Italy, by contrast, has reached the point where even RAI, the public broadcasting network, faces a hefty fine for finally revealing to Italians – 80 per cent of whom only get their news from TV – that Mr Berlusconi is alleged to have spent the night of Mr Obama’s election last November with a prostitute.
The press and media are intimidated by measures ranging from pressure to writs. The centre-left opposition is planning a protest this weekend in defence of press freedom.
But it is demoralised and divided. The real opposition comes from within Mr Berlusconi’s own ranks, with Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of the PdL, waiting in the wings as a challenger.
Next week the Constitutional Court is due to rule on whether the law Mr Berlusconi passed last year giving himself immunity from prosecution is valid. If the immunity law is knocked down there will be turmoil.
Mr Berlusconi may then step down and call early elections, confident that he will be reconfirmed in office with a mandate to do as he wishes. Those within the centre Right who fear that his arrogant behaviour is not only damaging Italy’s standing abroad but endangering its democracy at home may have other ideas.

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