Italy: The Berlusconi Syndrome in EU Elections

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By Bettina Corke, Womens Feature Service

In 2007-08, it became obvious to the European Women’s Lobby – made up of 200 or so major women’s organisations in the 27-member states of the European Union – that a backlash against the feminist cause was taking place in many institutions throughout Europe.

It was then decided that a concerted effort based upon a quota system in support of gender equality would be made to help women who wished to put themselves forward as candidates for the European Parliament. An agreement was made between the feminists who were not in favour of a quota system and those who felt that there was no solution other than the imposition of a 50/50 campaign. So, the campaign to promote gender equality was launched, with the theme ‘No Modern Democracy Without Gender Equality’.

In her support for the campaign, Diane Wallis, a UK Member of the European Parliament, put it this way, “The European Union can only expect respect and trust if all of its institutions look and feel representative of those they seek to serve.” Campaigners said that they did not want a democracy that is one-sided and which is merely a reworking of the old kind of imposed democracy of the “old boys club” variety with corporate trans-national networking of the private sector thrown in.

During the first five months or so of 2009, some details of how misguided and misinformed some European Union political leaders were and are about the feminist movement came to the notice of the general public. In many countries when the candidates lists of people wishing to be Members of the European Parliament were published, it appeared that either no women or very few “women candidates were being fielded by the various national political parties.

Some of the more democratic and progressive political parties did address this matter of gender equality and a few political parties and leaders embraced the idea that as 70 per cent of the members to the European Parliament are men, the Europe Parliament” was in need of “gender equality”. Yves Leterne, the Prime Minister of Belgium, was one of the leaders who endorsed the gender equality idea. He stated, “I take up the idea of the equal representation of men and women and in my role as Prime Minister I take this opportunity to begin to achieve this objective.”

Other leaders, such as the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, have a different perspective on the worth and value of women in politics from that of Leterne. When Berlusconi does the choosing, all the expert and highly experienced women involved in the political life of the country are excluded because he is not interested in them. Experience and commitment is not what he is looking for. In his own words, Berlusconi wants “youthful faces in the European Parliament – young and pretty faces”.

Lluis Foix, a Spanish journalist writing in ‘La Vanguardia’, criticised Berlusconi’s idea of filling the lists of candidates for the European elections with “pretty women”. He wrote, “Silvio Berlusconi’s attitude is grotesque. He is trivialising the European elections by proposing to put pretty women on the lists, good looking women who through their participation in TV competitions and other trivial television shows are familiar to voters. This is a plan that does not serve the cause of supporting the dignity of women, who don’t need the help of Berlusconi’s fantasies to take part in every part of society”.

After the media hype, Berlusconi’s political party, Peoples Freedom Party, chose only one female candidate from his list of five candidates. The media named his list as Berlusconi’s “Show Girl Candidates”. The chosen one was Barbara Madera, a former Miss Italy contestant and TV announcer.

The Italian Prime Minister’s wife, Veronica Lario sadly commented that Berlusconi’s list was shameful. She wrote in an e-mail to a news agency that his proposed list of female candidates for his People of Freedom Party was put together merely “to entertain the emperor and that it was all done in the name of power”. The couple is believed to have estranged ties.

Many men today feel that feminists exaggerate the extent of discrimination women, whether within the home, in the workplace or within society. But the facts speak for themselves. A five-year report on the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales, carried out in the UK by the Fawcett Society recently, states that the criminal justice system in England and Wales is “institutionally sexist”. There are only 42 female prosecuting barristers as compared with 479 male prosecuting barristers; only 12 per cent of women hold top positions in the police force; and only 16 per cent of the partners in the country’s 10 biggest law firms are women.

The report goes on to say that “getting more women into the justice system would be a huge step forward in making it more responsive to women”. It is a justice system designed for men. Rape and domestic violence convictions are shockingly low. In 2007, 63 per cent of the women jailed were given prison sentences of six months or more and were sent to prison merely because they did not pay fines or pay their TV licences. They had not committed violent criminal acts.

Sharon Smee of the Fawcett Society believes that “women need justice and justice needs women.” Her words hold equally true for Europe’s democracy.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.