Saturday 27 May 2017

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Beware the seduction of the charismatic leader

THE droll and incisive cartoonist Gerald Scarfe used extra-sharpened pencils to lampoon Berlusconi at the weekend. The toppled premier was drawn naked, paunchy, red-nosed, hunched over and hiding his overused bits with a small, very small Italian flag while a stripped blonde fled. A scrawled rhyme lamented the exit of a leader who inspired never-ending satire and amusement: "You old buffoon, I'll miss you so."

So will millions of Italian voters and other supporters of the raffish casanova and Teflon tycoon. What a guy, they say, he brought fun, porn, soap-opera storylines and delicious absurdity to the tedious business of politics. Just listen to Nancy Dell'Olio, our spangled and painted self-styled leaderine who now regularly calls upon herself to comment on world events and figures. Silvio's just lovely, so clever when you sit next to him at dinner parties, she trills – with both his hands on the table, one hopes.

Berlusconi used his popular appeal to great effect. The former cruise-ship crooner knew how to please a crowd. Over many years he smiled and joked while dipping and ducking, craftily avoiding legal intrusions into his murky business affairs and scrutiny over policy decisions some of which led Italy down to where it is today. More cynical still was his strategic use of charm and showmanship during the gravest of crises. Three thousand people died and many more were left homeless when an earthquake hit Abruzzo in central Italy. Silvio arrived like Flashman, ensured tents were set up, promising reconstruction. How they cheered even when he joked that the tent dwellers should enjoy the experience like a camping holiday and then asked a young female volunteer if he could fondle her a little. A year later, no reconstruction at all had been carried out and an acclaimed film, Draquila, by Sabina Guzzanti about Berlusconi's handling of the quake, alleged a series of shocking failures and draconian restrictions on the freedom of expression of residents. But he was so lovely, so clever. Certainly the last.

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