On Sunday 13 February, more than a million Italians, most of them women, took to the streets to demand that Silvio Berlusconi resign. Their slogan was taken from Primo Levi: ‘If not now, when?’ Their theme song was Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’. The demonstrations (which took place in 231 Italian cities, as well as in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Brussels) were organised, without official political backing, by a variety of groups including Il Popolo Viola (‘The Purple People’), a web-based youth network, established in December 2009 to campaign against Berlusconi and the political ‘caste’ governing Italy. Berlusconi’s resignation was not forthcoming. Instead, he looks set to be possibly the first prime minister of a democratic country to stand trial while still in office, charged with abuse of power and the ‘exploitation of underage prostitution’.[*]

Berlusconi is still in a surprisingly strong position, domestically. Since 1994 he has constructed a political class totally dedicated to him, through unfettered use of his political, financial and media power. His supporters are everywhere. One of his cronies is now director general of the state broadcaster. Under the current electoral system, voters can’t choose between individual candidates, only between huge party lists. This has increased the patronage of party leaders, and greatly diminished any possibility of dissent. Anyone who does oppose Berlusconi soon finds their private life being dragged through the mud by his newspapers and TV channels.

His internal hegemony was threatened recently by a split with his long-term ally, Gianfranco Fini, who left the coalition in July 2010, taking a number of deputies with him (possibly with American encouragement: the US is losing patience with Berlusconi, as recent WikiLeaks revelations have shown, seeing him as a useful idiot who has done their bidding over Iraq and Afghanistan but is not to be trusted). In December, Berlusconi narrowly survived a confidence vote in Parliament. Since then he has been busy buying back his majority.

Meanwhile, his followers insist that the investigation is a political conspiracy of left-wing judges, and that democracy is being subverted by unelected magistrates. This may sound far-fetched, but plenty of people in Italy believe it. The country has a weak state whose institutions have rarely been seen as legitimate by its citizens, many of whom believe that judges act politically (and, it has to be said, they’re not entirely wrong). Yet the evidence against him in the Ruby case seems overwhelming, and he faces a number of other more serious criminal trials in the coming months. His numerous attempts to pass laws giving himself immunity have all come unstuck thanks to the Italian constitution, although he has managed to delay many trials long enough for them to fall under the statute of limitations, allowing him to claim that he has never been found guilty of any crime.

Berlusconi’s greatest ally of all, however, is the Italian left. Divided, bereft of ideas, weak and spineless, it has shown itself incapable of creating a coherent alternative to Berlusconi’s rule. Split by grotesque internal divisions, endlessly renaming and rebranding itself, it has been nothing but help to Berlusconi, not least by failing to pass an anti-trust law when it was in power between 1996 and 2001. The Italian Communist Party used to be one of the greatest mass parties in the western world. Its huge network of party sections, newspapers, cultural organisations and associations was dismantled in the 1990s in the name of ‘modernity’. Nothing was put in its place. If Berlusconi wins again, and such a thing is entirely possible, then the centre-left leadership have no one to blame but themselves.

But we should all be worried. In the last scene of Nanni Moretti’s extraordinary and increasingly prophetic 2006 film about Berlusconi, Il caimano (‘The Cayman’), Berlusconi, played by Moretti, is condemned by a magistrate based on his current accuser, Ilda Boccassini. As he is driven away from the court, grim-faced, the camera peers out of the back window of his limo. In front of the court-house, Berlusconi’s supporters are throwing petrol bombs at the judges.

[*] Anyone interested in a detailed account of the case against Berlusconi should email j.foot@ucl.ac.uk