Bunga, bunga: Ber­lus­coni re­turns to Ital­ian pol­i­tics

Now seeks power as uni­fier, king­maker


ROME | Bunga bunga is back. Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni may be best known around the world for his “bunga bunga” sex par­ties and con­vic­tions for cor­rup­tion that have reg­u­larly un­der­mined a ca­reer un­like any other in post­war Ital­ian pol­i­tics. The last time he held po­lit­i­cal of­fice, he was forced to re­sign with the coun­try on the brink of bank­ruptcy, and, be­cause of a 2013 tax fraud con­vic­tion, he is legally barred from run­ning for of­fice again un­til 2019.

He’s clearly not get­ting the mes­sage. The bil­lion­aire me­dia and sports ty­coon and on-again-off-again politi­cian who served three stints as Italy’s prime min­is­ter from 1994 to 2011 is pre­par­ing to make one more grasp for power. At age 81, Mr. Ber­lus­coni is poised to play yet an­other role in the coun­try’s frag­mented pol­i­tics: king­maker.

De­spite all the po­lit­i­cal obit­u­ar­ies writ­ten for the man over the years, many here are not sur­prised.

“Yes, against all odds, we seem to be ready to give Ber­lus­coni one more shot,” said An­drea Moretti, a 44-year-old cook who said he was briefly a Ber­lus­coni sup­porter when he first en­tered pol­i­tics in 1994. “It is at once un­be­liev­able and ab­so­lutely pre­dictable.”

The spec­u­la­tion has surged since Mr. Ber­lus­coni’s po­lit­i­cal party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), dra­mat­i­cally grabbed the top spot in last week’s re­gional elec­tions in Si­cily. The vote was seen as a har­bin­ger for na­tional elec­tions set to take place in the first half of next year.

The Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem has rarely seemed sta­ble or pre­dictable, but this is a par­tic­u­larly vo­latile pe­riod. There are three dis­tinct fac­tions: the tra­di­tional cen­ter-left Demo­cratic Party, the anti-es­tab­lish­ment Five-Star Move­ment, and Mr. Ber­lus­coni and his al­lies to the right of cen­ter — all claw­ing at one an­other while try­ing to pre­vent their bases from splin­ter­ing.

In an ex­quis­ite irony, the po­lar­iz­ing Mr. Ber­lus­coni may be the most uni­fy­ing fig­ure on the Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal scene, an­a­lysts say.

“Ber­lus­coni’s main strength at this point may be his abil­ity to keep dis­parate groups work­ing to­gether,” said Franco Pavon­cello, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and pres­i­dent of Rome’s John Cabot Univer­sity. “Given the prob­lems most po­lit­i­cal par­ties are hav­ing, that’s not an in­signif­i­cant strength.”

A three-party coali­tion led by Forza Italia took al­most 40 per­cent of the vote in Si­cily on Nov. 5, more than 5 per­cent­age points bet­ter than the Five-Star Move­ment and more than 20 points ahead of the Demo­cratic Party, led by for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi, a close po­lit­i­cal ally and friend of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. Although much of north­ern Italy is less-friendly elec­toral ter­ri­tory for Mr. Ber­lus­coni, the re­sults sug­gest that his coali­tion has the in­side track for na­tional elec­tions ex­pected in Fe­bru­ary or March and that he could have a de­ci­sive say in any coali­tion gov­ern­ment formed af­ter the vote.

“We are the only al­ter­na­tive,” Mr. Ber­lus­coni ex­ulted as the Si­cil­ian re­sults were com­ing in.

Ital­ian re­nais­sance

It is a dra­matic change from 2011, when Mr. Ber­lus­coni was all but writ­ten off af­ter step­ping down once again as prime min­is­ter. He was en­gulfed in le­gal scan­dals, such as hir­ing un­der­age pros­ti­tutes and pay­ing bribes to in­flu­ence-ped­dling and false ac­count­ing. Un­der his lead­er­ship, in­ter­est rates for Ital­ian gov­ern­ment debt rose so high that economists said the coun­try was just weeks away from de­fault. Poll­sters said that less than 1 in 6 Ital­ians ap­proved of his per­for­mance.

In one high-pro­file case, Mr. Ber­lus­coni, then 74, was ac­cused of pay­ing 17-year-old Moroc­can-born erotic dancer Karima El Mahroug — best known by her nick­name “Ruby the Heart-stealer” — for sex. When Miss El Mahroug was ar­rested in Mi­lan on charges of shoplift­ing, Mr. Ber­lus­coni called po­lice from the side­lines of a sum­mit in Paris to ap­peal for her re­lease. He claimed she was the grand­daugh­ter of Hosni Mubarak, then pres­i­dent of Egypt.

Mr. Ber­lus­coni fa­mously coined the term “bunga bunga” to refer to or­gies he hosted at his vil­las in Sar­dinia and Mi­lan, fea­tur­ing the me­dia ty­coon along with for­eign lead­ers and prom­i­nent Ital­ians re­port­edly en­joy­ing the fa­vors of dozens of young pros­ti­tutes.

Mr. Ber­lus­coni brushed off the ac­cu­sa­tions at the time, at one point jok­ing with sup­port­ers: “When poll­sters asked Ital­ian women if they would be will­ing to have sex with me, 30 per­cent said, ‘Sure, why not?’ The other 70 per­cent said, ‘What? Again?’”

Not all vot­ers wel­come the turn of events. Some sound re­signed to the prospect of yet an­other Ber­lus­coni come­back.

“This is just a mat­ter of con­ve­nience,” said Marco Lillini, 62, a re­tired com­mer­cial pi­lot. “Peo­ple are sick of pol­i­tics, and they have short mem­o­ries. So in des­per­a­tion, some will turn to a fa­mil­iar name like Ber­lus­coni.”

Mr. Ber­lus­coni is bask­ing in the suc­cess of his party’s vic­tory in Si­cily and his re­turn to cen­ter stage. Italy’s poorer south­ern re­gions have al­ways been friendly to the pop­ulist bil­lion­aire’s style of pol­i­tics, and he cam­paigned hard in re­cent weeks to do well there. Af­ter­ward, he pre­dicted Ital­ian vot­ers were ready to vote for him as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of “con­struc­tive change based on sin­cer­ity, com­pe­tence and ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Next up for Mr. Ber­lus­coni is a rul­ing on his ap­peal against the ban on hold­ing pub­lic of­fice be­fore 2019. The Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice is ex­pected to de­cide on his case be­fore the end of the year.

Re­gard­less of the out­come, most po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors think it’s un­likely Mr. Ber­lus­coni will man­age to be­come prime min­is­ter again, even if par­ties al­lied to him do well in next year’s na­tional vote.

“Ber­lus­coni is more vi­able now than he had been, but he’s al­most surely too po­lar­iz­ing to pull to­gether a rul­ing coali­tion,” said Fabio De Nardis, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal so­ci­ol­ogy at Italy’s Univer­sity of Sa­lento. “I see him hav­ing more po­ten­tial to be­come a kind of be­hind-the-scenes power bro­ker with a big say in set­ting gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties.”

That no­tion is likely to send shiv­ers down the spines of sup­port­ers of the Euro­pean Union, which is al­ready reel­ing from Brexit and suc­cess of anti­estab­lish­ment po­lit­i­cal par­ties in sev­eral EU states.

It is also anath­ema to any­one hop­ing for a pe­riod of rel­a­tive calm and civil dis­course in the coun­try’s pol­i­tics.

“It’s sur­pris­ing and dis­ap­point­ing to me that in this day and age a fig­ure like Ber­lus­coni can still be taken se­ri­ously de­spite ev­ery­thing he’s done,” said 34-yearold Elise San­ders, a na­tive of Gaffney, South Carolina, who is work­ing in Italy as a teacher. “When will the pub­lic learn how to re­ject ridicu­lous fig­ures like him?”


DE­FY­ING THE ODDS: For­mer Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni seems to have be­come the most uni­fy­ing fig­ure on the po­lit­i­cal scene, an­a­lysts say.

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