Day 6

Bunga bunga is back: Berlusconi and the power of populism in Italy's elections

Italy goes to the polls on Sunday and according to Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk, the world should be paying attention. He says that the re-emergence of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tells us a lot about populism and the threat to democracy.
Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi arrives for the European People's Party (EPP) Congress on March 30, 2017 in San Giljan, Malta. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Italy goes to the polls on Sunday, bringing to an end a volatile and unpredictable election campaign, in which 30 to 40 percent of voters remain undecided.

Europe's fourth largest economy is struggling with deficits, a large debt load, high unemployment, a shaky banking industry, as well as social and political unrest.

Berlusconi's remarkable comeback shows just how difficult it is for a country to rid itself of populists once they have infiltrated the system.- Yascha Mounk, lecturer at Harvard University

Populism is on the rise, on both the left and the right — and what's more, the nation's most notorious bad-boy politician is back in action.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has brought together a coalition of right-wing parties, including his own Forza Italia, which is currently several points ahead in polls.

For Yascha Mounk, this state of affairs does not bode well for democracy, in Italy and beyond.

The academic and author of the new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It, wrote recently in Slate that, "Berlusconi's remarkable comeback shows just how difficult it is for a country to rid itself of populists once they have infiltrated the system."

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he attends a rally outside his house, Palazzo Grazioli, on November 27, 2013 in Rome, Italy. (Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)

Back in action

Berlusconi, who served as leader for 17 years, was ousted in 2011 following sexual and financial scandals (he's banned from seeking public office himself). He left with a dubious political record: a sluggish economy and a compromised judicial system. And yet his popularity endures.

Mounk writes that, "perhaps the most striking thing about Berlusconi's return is that the rest of the country's political scene has surpassed him in craziness during the years of his political exile."

Apparently these kinds of figures can actually perpetuate themselves and even mount stunning comebacks once they've been thrown out of politics.- Yascha Mounk

That scene includes the nationalist, anti-immigrant Lega Nord party and the Cinque Stelle movement, an insurgent, anti-establishment party with its support concentrated among young people.

The rise of these populist parties, Mounk explains to Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese, is evidence that "the mode of politics Berlusconi championed really has taken hold all across the political spectrum. And that, too, has me really worried about the long term effect of figures like Berlusconi."

Yascha Mounk is an author and Harvard University lecturer. (Supplied/Harvard University Press)

Uncertain future

In the case of Italy, the instability created by populist movements has had an impact on social cohesion — Lega Nord is rabidly anti-immigrant — and on the possibility for positive economic reform. Mounk warns that Italy could find itself, like Greece before it, mired in a financial crisis and on the brink of crashing out of the EU.

He also says that Americans should be watching Italy's fate closely. Like Berlusconi, President Donald Trump is "a billionaire with a knack for shameless self-promotion, [and] a love of surrounding himself with beautiful women."

Silvio Berlusconi poses with a supporter at the end of a campaign rally in Milan on February 25, 2018, ahead of the Italian general elections of next week. (Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images)

And the conventional wisdom of pundits and his political opposition is that the antics of figures like Trump, from investigations of possible complicity with Russia to allegations of affairs with (and pay-offs to) porn stars, will eventually lead to their demise.

The return of Berlusconi should warn them otherwise. Mounk says "it's astounding" that the appeal of populist leaders survives even after they've failed and been disgraced.

"This has me quite worried," he says, "because apparently these kinds of figures can actually perpetuate themselves and even mount stunning comebacks once they've been thrown out of politics."


To hear our full interview with Yascha Mounk, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.