Is Berlusconi coming back?
Elections boost Italy’s former PM
Silvio Berlusconi, the 81-year-old billionaire politician some Italians call Il Cavaliere (the knight), is enjoying a political comeback.
The outcome of regional elections in Sicily on 5 November confirmed his capacity for survival over a long political career tainted by sex scandals, allegations of corruption and a tax fraud conviction that many pundits predicted would kill him off. Berlusconi succeeded in forging a winning coalition out of his centre-right Forza Italia and the two far-right parties – the Northern League and Brothers of Italy.
In doing so, he crushed the populist Five Star Movement’s dream of governing its first region and compounded the disarray within the centre-left Democratic party, which had been in power in Sicily since 2012.
The results, seen as a barometer of how things might play out in national elections due in spring, thrust the media and property magnate back into the forefront of Italian politics, six years after he was forced to resign over claims he paid for sex with an underage prostitute and four years after he was ejected from parliament over the tax fraud conviction. The comeback comes less than 18 months after he underwent open-heart surgery.
Berlusconi ascribed his success, which saw Forza Italia’s Nello Musumeci become president of Sicily, to his many appearances on the island in the run-up to the vote. Berlusconi’s second term as prime minister, between 2001 and 2006, was the longest held by any Italian leader since the second world war. It’s this experience and longevity that his loyal band of supporters find so appealing. Catia Polidori, a Forza Italia parliamentarian and deputy minister of economic development in his last government, said: “He’s a great businessman and led a better economy; if you look at the economic data from the period he was in office, it was a lot better than it is now. Pensions were higher, people lived better, there was less poverty and less unemployment.”
During his time away from the central political scene, Berlusconi has nurtured a softer image, projecting himself as a lover of nature and animals, announcing last year that he had become a vegetarian. On the day before the Sicilian elections, he posted a photo of himself on Instagram taking a stroll around Catania’s botanical gardens. He and his 32-yearold girlfriend, Francesca Pascale, keep 10 dogs at home, while sheep wander around their well-kept lawns.
Meanwhile the Italian government has lurched from one unelected prime minister to the next, with Matteo Renzi, head of the ruling Democratic party, being forced to quit last December over his failed referendum on a constitutional overhaul. The 42-yearold is plotting his own 2018 comeback, taking an eight-week tour of Italy by train as part of his campaign. “But the truth is that, politically, Renzi is now a spent force,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “Many people see him as arrogant.”
The consequences of the referendum paved the way for the centreright to re-emerge as a viable option. Although Forza Italia hovered around 14% in an opinion poll last Thursday, behind the Five Star Movement, which leads with 27.4%, and the Democratic party, in second place with 25.6%, a recent change in electoral law allowing parties to form alliances ahead of an election could see it replicate its Sicily success nationally. That doesn’t mean to say Berlusconi will be prime minister again: he’s appealing against a ban from office over the fraud conviction to the European court of human rights, but it is unlikely that a verdict will be delivered before the ballot.
Orsina said: “To think that Berlusconi is the best that Italian politics can give is a sign of the inability of the system to rejuvenate itself, to propose new leaders.”
All smiles … Berlusconi allied his Forza Italia with far-right parties