Italy: Tomatoes and the Color Purple vs. Silvio

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, increasingly under attack by trade unions angered at his austerity proposals and a feckless economic program that has produced virtually no growth, now finds himself besieged on the Internet. There is a certain irony that this rightwing media mogul should find himself beset by the electronic media.

Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi looks down during a news conference at Palazzo Chigi in RomeThrough his massive holding company, Fininvest, Berlusconi owns Mediaset, one of the largest communications companies in Europe. It controls Italy’s three most watched channels, as well as Telecinco in Spain. Because he controls the government, Berlusconi also dominates the public station, RAI. What Italians see on their televisions is what Silvio wants them to see, and that means sports, soaps, and news shows that look like a joint undertaking by Fox News and Victoria’s Secret.

Shortly after a quarter of a million people turned out in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo last October to challenge Berlusconi’s control of the media and the Prime Minister’s efforts to make himself immune from the law, the “Purple Movement” sprang up on the Internet. According to one of the group’s founders, Emanuele Toscano, purple is the “symbolic color of battle for the affirmation of democracy, for the respect of our Constitutional Charter as the foundation of civilized living, for the defense of a free and plural information system.”

Using Internet tools like Face book, the “Purples” set up a nationwide network of Internet users, who turned out leaflets, organized transportation, and on Dec. 5 put several hundred thousand people into Rome’s San Giovanni Square for a “No Berlusconi Day.” The Rome police estimated the crowd 90,000, but even Berlusconi cabinet member, Robert Calderolli, put the number at 350,000.

Dec. 5 was Italy’s first Internet-promoted demonstration, similar in many ways to the massive 1999 demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle.

“The net is a natural incubator of dissent,” argues Toscano, although the “Purples” also used old-fashioned methods as well, like handing out leaflets downloaded off the web, and flooding local newspapers with letters. The latter strategy was essential because only about one-third of Italy’s 60 million people are connected to the Internet, and only seven million of those use it with any regularity.

Other on-line groups, like “More People Love Tomatoes than Silvio Berlusconi,” have sprung up, and the torrent of Internet opposition, coupled with growing union resistance, is starting to seriously dent the Prime Minister’s popularity. His poll numbers have plummeted from 49 percent approval in January, to 35 percent in May.

Political figures all over the continent are taking a beating because of the current recession, but nothing like Silvio. Even Europe’s basket case, Greece, gives its Prime Minister, George Papandreou, a 43 percent approval rating—a drop of 10 percent—and crisis-wracked Spain and Portugal have seen their prime ministers’ poll numbers fall only 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent respectively.

Some of Berlusconi’s wounds are self-inflicted, including his squabbles with rightwing allies in the Parliament, his sexual escapades, his fight with the Catholic Church, and his rather bizarre falling out with Rupert Murdoch. His admiring use of a quote by fascist leader Benito Mussolini during a Paris news conference on May 27 is not liable to help.

Italian unions are gearing up for a one-day general strike to protest Berlusconi’s austerity package, and Guglielmo Epifani, head of the General Confederation of Italian Unions (CGIL), has called for a June 12 protest in Rome. “The cuts are all concentrated on workers, the same old recipe that leaves out the high wage earners,” Epifani told the Financial Times. The austerity package calls for a three-year wage freeze.

Besieged on the streets, hounded by the Purples and the Tomatoes on the Internet, the Capo di tutti capi of Italian politics looks headed for a fall.