Af­ter a tax fraud con­vic­tion, sex scan­dals and heart surgery, Ber­lus­coni is back again

Dis­graced ex-PM forges vic­to­ri­ous coali­tion in Si­cily as cen­tre-left falls into fur­ther dis­ar­ray

The Observer - - WORLD - By An­gela Gi­uf­frida Rome

Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni re­sorted to a fa­mil­iar tac­tic to ap­peal to the crowd dur­ing a re­cent po­lit­i­cal come­back speech on the en­chant­ing Ital­ian is­land of Ischia: a joke laced with sex­ual in­nu­endo.

Ad­dress­ing the topic of immigration, the 81-year- old proudly re­counted the time his good friend Muam­mar Gaddafi took him on a tour of a mi­grant cen­tre, dur­ing which Ber­lus­coni noted the ab­sence of bidets in the lava­to­ries. When the late Libyan dic­ta­tor asked what a bidet was used for, Ber­lus­coni em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of wash­ing be­fore oral sex. The billionaire’s punch­line – “I taught the Africans about fore­play” – had its de­sired ef­fect, draw­ing laugh­ter and ap­plause.

Yes, the politi­cian some Ital­ians call Il Cava­liere (the knight) is back, still com­bin­ing his pen­chant for vul­gar­ity with a honed in­stinct for power.

The out­come of re­gional elec­tions in Si­cily last Sun­day con­firmed his re­mark­able ca­pac­ity for sur­vival over a long po­lit­i­cal ca­reer tainted by sex scan­dals, count­less allegations of cor­rup­tion and a tax fraud con­vic­tion which 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 fore- front 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.

In a fur­ther re­flec­tion of his en­dur­ing vi­tal­ity, the come­back comes less than 18 months af­ter Ber­lus­coni un­der­went open-heart surgery.

“Si­cily has cho­sen the path of real, se­ri­ous, con­struc­tive change, based on hon­esty, com­pe­tence and ex­pe­ri­ence,” he wrote on his Face­book page, while as­crib­ing the 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 po­lit­i­cal track record is not ex­actly stel­lar, but his sec­ond term as prime min­is­ter, be­tween 2001 and 2006, is 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: “It’s no sur­prise that Ber­lus­coni has re­turned to the cen­tre of the po­lit­i­cal scene.

“His res­ig­na­tion was forced by an in­ter­na­tional plot, but his lead­er­ship was re­spected. 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.”

Poli­dori also ap­plauded his good relations with Gaddafi, say­ing: “We never had the kind of mi­grants’ in­va­sion that we have to­day.” She also brushed aside the sex scan­dals. “We know the real Ber­lus­coni – he’s kind and is one of the most el­e­gant men in the world. With re­gards to the women in his party, he’s al­ways ad­mired us and our work.”

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 veg­e­tar­ian. On the day be­fore the Si­cily elec­tions, he posted a photo of him­self on In­sta­gram tak­ing a stroll around Catania’s botan­i­cal gar­dens. He and his 32-year-old girl­friend, Francesca Pas­cale, keep 10 dogs at home, while sheep wan­der around their well-man­i­cured lawns.

“Ber­lus­coni is much more mod­er­ate these days, in pol­i­tics and in his per­sonal life,” in­sisted Poli­dori.

Mean­while, the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment has lurched from one un­elected prime min­is­ter to the next, with the for­mer leader, Mat­teo Renzi, the head of the rul­ing cen­tre- left Demo­cratic party, be­ing forced to quit last De­cem­ber over his failed ref­er­en­dum on a con­sti­tu­tional over­haul.

The 42-year- old is plot­ting his own 2018 come­back, be­gin­ning an eightweek tour of Italy by train in Oc­to­ber 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. He’s our Theresa May – he bet all his money on the ref­er­en­dum ex­actly the same way she bet all hers on the gen­eral elec­tion, al­though he fared even worse.”

The con­se­quences of the ref­er­en­dum left the Demo­cratic party in cri­sis, paving the way for the cen­tre-right to reemerge as a vi­able op­tion for a long-dis­il­lu­sioned elec­torate. Even though Forza Italia hov­ered around 14% in an opinion poll on 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 cur­rently 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.

Ei­ther way, there is a strong chance he could end up pulling the strings of power, as vot­ers fed up with the left and sus­pi­cious of the Five Star Move­ment ei­ther switch to the right or sim­ply re­frain from vot­ing.

“Cer­tainly, there are re­ver­ber­a­tions with Si­cily but we must re­mem­ber that half of the elec­torate there didn’t vote – that says more about the state of Ital­ian pol­i­tics and is some­thing we need to pay closer at­ten­tion to,” said Franco Pavon­cello, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor and the pres­i­dent of Rome’s John Cabot Univer­sity.

Ber­lus­coni has been cred­ited as an al­chemist, able to form a coali­tion that could strike a chord with mod­er­ate vot­ers over is­sues such as immigration, crime and the slug­gish econ­omy, even if they de­spise far-right par­ties.

“A left­wing voter will never like the North­ern League,” said Orsina. “But a rightwing voter might say, ‘I dis­like their rhetoric but I will vote for the coali­tion with Forza Italia as I know Ber­lus­coni will keep them in check, be­cause that’s what he’s been do­ing for years’.”

But given the choices, there are a lot of rea­sons for Ital­ians to be de­pressed as the elec­tions near, he added.

“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,” he said. “Many peo­ple say they would never vote for him again, that he is un­bear­able. But there are some who will, al­beit un­hap­pily.”

‘We know the real Ber­lus­coni … he is much more mod­er­ate these days, in pol­i­tics and his per­sonal life’ Ca­tia Poli­dori, Forza Italia

Pho­to­graph by An­to­nio Par­rinello/ Reuters

Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni at an elec­tion rally in Catania ear­lier this month.’

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