Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's system of power has no precedent and no equal in the history of liberal and democratic countries. The most unsavory aspects of his regime are well known. He is continually embroiled in political corruption scandals: His longtime political partner Cesare Previti has been found guilty of bribery and sentenced to six years in prison. There are allegations of his connections to organized crime: His other partner in business and politics, Marcello Dell'Utri, has been sentenced to eight years in prison for his ties to the Sicilian Mafia. Berlusconi displays an open contempt for the judiciary and the constitutional court, as he regards both as unacceptable limitations on his power. Accordingly, his cabinets have passed laws to shield him from the judiciary. The numerous sex scandals during his rule have prompted commentators to call Italy a "bordello state" that is run by a "whoreocracy."
On Friday, Berlusconi again demonstrated his political staying power as he survived a no-confidence vote by Italy's parliament. The news serves as a reminder that Berlusconi's new, ambiguous, protean type of political power was born not against but within democratic institutions. Some scholars have suggested an analogy with fascism. Others have called it despotism, a kind of sultanate. Neither interpretation suffices. Fascism seized power in Italy through the systematic use of violence, including the assassination of political opponents, and kept it through the demolition of civil liberties. Berlusconi has used various forms of pressures against his opponents, but he has never commissioned assassinations. Nor has he jailed anyone on political grounds. Political liberty and civil rights are still in place. Newspapers and televisions (those not owned or controlled by Berlusconi) can print or broadcast harsh criticism against the government, citizens can freely organize rallies, and the opposition can raise its voice in the parliament. The concept of despotism, too, fails to capture the core of Berlusconi's regime -- the term "sultanate" evokes an exotic and distant regime sustained by tradition. Berlusconi would surely
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