Is Ber­lus­coni com­ing back?

Elec­tions boost Italy’s for­mer PM

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - An­gela Gi­uf­frida

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

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