With Berlusconi's latest escapades, the perplexity of the outside world has moved on to a new level: how can a political leader survive not only multiple financial and corruption misdemeanors, but also sexual and other misconduct with potential penal consequences (paying for sex with a minor, as well as, more recently, alleged involvement in illegal drug use)? Amongst others, the New York Times has run a number of articles addressing the mystifying survival of the most obviously flawed leader of any western country in recent times.
There is a lot that could be said here (I've also blogged about Berlusconi before here, here, here and here), but I'll stick with one basic point: Italians have very low expectations of their political leaders, and certainly do not see political leadership as involving any kind of moral example-setting. Instead, Italians voting for Berlusconi are mostly, I imagine, as disgusted with his antics as everyone else, but reluctant to contemplate voting for the other parties because Berlusconi actually does deliver the goods. What goods?
Well, Berlusconi looks after key voter groups: he subsidises the church and opens up new opportunities for Vatican involvement in Italian social life, he protects Italian professions and industries which rely on state-regulated monopoly status, he instructs the fiscal authorities to lay off on the rampant tax evasion of small businesses and the self-employed, and he discourages local authorities and judges from clamping down on building and other abuses which provide private benefits for some companies and households at the expense of the broad principle of the rule of law.
Most beneficiaries of these policies are smart enough to realize that the goods Berlusconi provides are worth a lot to them, whereas his own behaviour has no impact on their lives at all, apart from provoking slight embarrassment to the nation (and let's face it, it's not the first time Italians have had to put up with this). Hence, continued support for the man, and continued loyalty towards him from the servile politicians he elects on his ticket, and the equally servile journalists on his payroll (or who hope to be).