From king to kingmaker? Berlusconi’s latest, baffling comeback
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Despite a tax fraud conviction, a ban from public office and a long history of scandals, the 81-year-old tycoon is preparing for March 4 elections and still navigating Italy’s labyrinthine politics like no other.
Long before Emmanuel Macron pulled a party out of his hat and stormed the Élysée Palace, a media mogul with no political credentials pulled the same trick on Italy – and in half the time. Stuffed with marketing strategists in business suits, Forza Italia (Go Italy) was just five months old when its founder, Silvio Berlusconi, swept to power in the spring of 1994. While the grossly inexperienced government soon collapsed, the tycoon politician would go on to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades, eventually becoming the country’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II.
Ever since he burst onto the political stage, writing off Berlusconi’s chances has been a recipe for disaster. Time and time again Italy’s “comeback kid” has proved the sceptics wrong, bouncing back from an endless array of blunders and scandals to outlast and outmanoeuvre his opponents. But when a tax fraud conviction in 2012 stripped the former premier of his Senate seat, even the prudent pundits felt confident enough to declare him a spent force. They were wrong, yet again.
At 81, and just 18 months after undergoing open-heart surgery, the man once known as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) is somehow back on his horse, still cobbling together unlikely coalitions and promising Italians a rosy future with unshakeable optimism. On Sunday he hosted the leaders of his latest centre-right alliance, including the hard-right, anti-immigrant Northern League, at his luxury residence near Milan. Polls suggest together they will win the largest share of votes in the March 4 general election, though falling short of an overall majority.
The 'Scrapper' scrapped
As baffling as it may sound to many outsiders, Berlusconi’s latest return to the limelight comes with a number of caveats. For starters, his tax fraud conviction means he is barred from public office until November 2019 – a ban he is currently appealing before the EU’s human rights court. “This time he can play kingmaker, or be one of the kingmakers,” says Pierangelo Isernia, a political science professor at the University of Siena. “But he cannot be the king.”
Berlusconi’s party is also a much diminished force. While he has pulled it out of the political doldrums, Forza Italia’s estimated share of the vote now stands at around 16 percent – a far cry from the 30 percent it won in 2001 and the 38 percent it picked up in 2008 (under a different name). Back then his allies could be treated like sidekicks; now the rumbustious Northern League is only marginally smaller. As Professor Paolo Feltrin of the University of Trieste puts it, “Berlusconi has recovered his political relevance, not his electoral strength.”
That he should be back in the driving seat despite his diminished electoral clout is a testament to Berlusconi’s political acumen. It also reflects his opponents’ shortcomings, and Italian politics’ extraordinary failure to renew itself. Dubbed “the Scrapper”, the former centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was supposed to send Berlusconi’s generation to the scrapyard. But since a calamitous referendum defeat forced him to resign in 2016, Renzi has been struggling to keep his own career on track. Far from supplanting the Cavaliere, says Feltrin, “Renzi left a power vacuum that allowed Berlusconi to bounce back.”
On paper, Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) still commands a larger following than Forza Italia. At 23 percent, its sliding poll ratings make it the second-largest party behind the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. But unlike Forza Italia, Renzi’s PD has neither friends nor allies. “Renzi has shown he’s incapable of building coalitions, whereas Berlusconi is a master of the art,” says Pierluigi Battista, an editorialist at the Corriere della Sera. “While Berlusconi is always busy crafting alliances, all Renzi has achieved is spawning splinter groups to the left of the PD.”
Understanding Berlusconi's Italy
Battista says he’s not surprised by the centre-right’s recent resurgence. Instead, he’s “stunned by the ineptitude” of Berlusconi’s opponents and the shortsightedness of his critics. He likens observers puzzled by the tycoon’s umpteenth comeback to “US liberals who obsess over Trump’s possible impeachment while still failing to understand why voters in Michigan backed him in the first place.”
“A leader can vanish for a while, but not his political base,” says Battista. “Berlusconi represents a social block, with its own language and interests, embodied by the self-employed worker. These people exist, they’re not an invention of the media.”
While the southern housewife glued to Berlusconi’s TV chat shows once typified the Forza Italia voter, much of the party’s support lies in the small and medium-sized businesses that form the bedrock of the Italian economy. It includes people who don’t pay their taxes and others who do but no longer cope. Berlusconi’s trademark pledge to slash levies – empty promises, his critics say – is still music to their ears.
Never mind the extraordinary number of court cases their champion has been embroiled in. Never mind the laws passed to protect himself and his businesses, the "bunga bunga" scandals and lurid jokes, or the fact that Berlusconi personally intervened in 2011 to have a 17-year-old prostitute released from custody (fearing she would talk about her relationship with him) and then claimed he thought she was the niece of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. The centre-right’s core supporters remained loyal.
“Berlusconi’s voters don’t care about his private life,” says Feltrin. “Only magistrates see it as a handicap. In fact his defiance towards the judiciary has earned him more sympathy than disapproval. He knows how to interpret a certain aspect of the Italian character.”
During the last campaign in 2013, when the head of the Lombard aerospace giant Finmeccanica was arrested for bribing Indian officials to secure a giant helicopter contract, Berlusconi alone of all politicians blamed the judiciary for hurting Italian jobs. “Sometimes you simply cannot sell anything without a bribe,” he remarked. As the locals would say, Berlusconi speaks “alla pancia” (to the stomach) of many voters. He knows their weak spots, their mistrust of the state, and their fear of being caught with their hands in the till.
Wise old owl?
Meanwhile, perceptions of the elderly tycoon have changed dramatically among some of his long-suffering critics – largely because they have found a more worrying foe in comedian Beppe Grillo, the 5-Star Movement’s founder and leader, who has threatened to call a referendum on ditching the euro currency. “Many of Berlusconi's historic detractors, as well as foreign leaders like [Germany’s Angela] Merkel, now see Grillo as the scariest of the two,” says Feltrin. Even the former editor of The Economist magazine, which famously deemed Berlusconi “unfit to lead Italy”, suggested last week he could play a useful role in keeping more radical forces at bay, perhaps in a German-style “grand coalition” with Renzi’s centre-left.
Berlusconi is seeking to position himself as a pro-European moderate and the only man who can stem the anti-establishment tide that has swept much of the West. “The challenge is between moderates like us and the rebellious, poverty-perpetuating vigilante movement like Grillo’s followers,” he recently told the Corriere della Sera. In contrast with the vitriolic outbursts associated with Grillo and the Northern League, he has sought to project a milder image, reinventing himself as an animal lover and posing with the many pets and sheep that roam his lush estate.
But for all his attempts to appear wise and mature, Italy’s great illusionist is once again dispensing promises with wanton abandon, without bothering to explain how he’ll pay for them. Policies floated so far including slashing income, housing, inheritance and road taxes, reversing planned increases to the retirement age, doubling the lowest pensions, guaranteeing a minimum €1,000 income for everyone, and blocking the arrival of immigrants from North Africa. In perhaps the cheekiest statement, his party’s campaign logo reads “Berlusconi Prime Minister” – despite his ban from office.
In fairness, other parties’ pledges have been similarly fanciful. “Berlusconi and his rivals can multiply their promises knowing they won’t be called upon to deliver,” says Isernia, noting that Italy’s new electoral system, designed to favour broad coalitions, means there can be no single winner. If opinion polls are accurate, the March 4 vote will result in a hung parliament, followed by old-style political bargaining to cobble together a majority. Another vote could be on the cards. But whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Berlusconi will be in the thick of it.