Master con artist Silvio Berlusconi aims for top job in Italy

On paper, Rome’s Quirinal is too steep a hill for the aging Italian politician, who is struggling with legal issues, health issues and a dodgy reputation. But disbarring Silvio Berlusconi is still a risky bet as he vies for the Italian presidency later this month.

The most talked about Italian politician since World War II, Berlusconi was once described as a “disease that can only be cured by vaccination” by the country’s best-known post-war journalist, the late Indro Montanelli. . The vaccine, Montanelli argued on the eve of the 2001 general election, involved “a healthy injection of Berlusconi at the prime minister’s seat, Berlusconi at the president’s seat, Berlusconi at the pope’s seat or wherever he wishes.” Only then will we be immune.”

Montanelli was wrong about immunity, as were the many other pundits who called off the rider (the knight), time and time again, even as his political career – and his popularity – took off.

After serving all or part of four separate terms in the prime minister’s seat, longer than any other leader since Benito Mussolini, Berlusconi is now determined to climb the Quirinal, Rome’s tallest hill and the seat of Italy’s presidency. Always a storyteller, he portrayed his quest as the fulfillment of a childhood promise he once made to his mother.

Later this week, Berlusconi will host other right-wing leaders at his Roman villa, hoping to win the support of their lawmakers when parliament begins the long process of electing Italy’s next head of state on January 24. . He has also contacted MPs from other political parties, including those deemed most hostile to his candidacy, knowing he will have to poach votes from rival camps if he is to succeed incumbent President Sergio Mattarella.

Political vacuum

Berlusconi’s unlikely shot at the presidency, aged 85, comes just over a year after he was seriously ill with Covid-19, five years after undergoing open-heart surgery and a decade after he was was sentenced to prison for tax evasion and banned from holding public office. Unsurprisingly, this has sparked bewilderment and amusement, not least because the former prime minister is still on trial for allegedly bribing witnesses in an underage prostitution case linked to his infamous “Bunga Bunga” sex parties.

Protesters hold signs reading ‘The Quirinal is not a Bunga Bunga’ in Rome on January 4, 2022. © Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters

Giuseppe Provenzano, deputy leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, called the candidacy a “tragic joke”. Analysts, however, have cautioned against taking it lightly, noting that Berlusconi has already overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

“Berlusconi himself is certainly extremely serious,” said Maurizio Cotta, professor of political science at the University of Siena. He suggested that the current state of flux in Italian politics gave the former prime minister an outside chance to push through.

“There is currently no strong political majority in the country and no political leader with a clear strategy,” Cotta explained. “Berlusconi is taking advantage of this vacuum, as he did in 1994, after the collapse of the old post-war parties.”

Come on, Italy!

Two decades before Emmanuel Macron pulled a political party out of his hat and conjured victory at the Élysée Palace, Berlusconi, a media mogul with no political credentials, pulled off the same trick in Italy – and in half the time. time. Composed of marketing strategists in business suits, Forza Italy (Go, Italy) was just five months old when its founder took power in the spring of 1994. While his grossly inexperienced first administration quickly crumbled, the politician magnate continued to dominate Italian politics for two following decades, bouncing back with further electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2008.

It would take a combination of the eurozone debt crisis, a bitter party split and grim tales of orgies featuring showgirls and prostitutes in his private residence to finally push Berlusconi to step down for the last time in 2011, amid boos from demonstrators gathered in central Rome to celebrate his departure. His legal troubles finally caught up with him the following year when he was imprisoned for tax evasion and dismissed from office, although his prison sentence was commuted due to his advanced age.

Since then, Berlusconi has continued to operate in the shadows, assuming the role of kingmaker. Now he wants to regain his place in the limelight.

“Being elected to the Quirinal would seal his revenge after being kicked out of parliament because of his legal problems,” Cotta said. “It would vindicate Berlusconi’s claims of a plot against him and mark the pinnacle of his political career.”

Back on the market

The pinnacle of Italy’s political system, the Quirinal sits somewhere between the powerful French presidency and the largely ceremonial role of a German head of state. Its significant powers are more apparent in times of political instability – of which Italy has no shortage.

“When political parties can run the country on their own, the president tends to step back,” Cotta said. “However, it is increasingly common for parliament to become deadlocked, forcing the president to intervene. This pattern is likely to continue in the near future, with no immediate prospect of forming a strong coalition.”

In recent years, Italian presidents have played a decisive role in building coalitions, approving or vetoing ministerial appointments, and appointing technocratic cabinets and prime ministers – including the current prime minister, Mario Draghi.

The Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome, seat of the Italian Presidency.
The Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome, seat of the Italian Presidency. Filippo Monteforte, AFP

The former head of the European Central Bank has been touted as the strongest potential candidate for the presidency. But analysts fear an early exit from Draghi could upset the delicate balance of power in his government, just as Italy emerges from the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a fear Berlusconi has sought to play on, warning of new elections and potential instability if Draghi moves from the prime minister’s office to the presidency.

Seeking to restore his image, Berlusconi presented himself as an experienced statesman capable of rising above the political fray. Last November, he sent an anthology of his speeches to almost all of the roughly 1,000 MPs who will elect the next president. He recently praised a citizens’ income protection program championed by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an effort to sway some of its members – normally among its worst enemies.

The former housing, advertising and media mogul, who made his first income selling door-to-door vacuum cleaners, is doing everything he can to market his candidacy. According to the Italian daily The Republiche spent much of the Christmas holiday season handing out greetings, gifts and making in-person phone calls to lawmakers left, right and center.

“Berlusconi is desperate for the job. He’s doing everything he can to get it, taking the votes one by one,” Cotta said. “He is always the great persuasive; an outstanding seller and in this case a seller of himself.

“Guarantor of Corruption”

Candidates for the Quirinal must collect two-thirds of the votes to win the presidency. But if no one reaches that goal in the first three rounds, as is usually the case, the bar is lowered to 50% plus one.

To cross the bar, Berlusconi hopes to influence around 50 votes out of a group of 113 “unaffiliated” legislators, counting on the secrecy of the ballot. He must also secure the overwhelming support of the centre-right bloc, which will require the official endorsement of right-wing nationalists Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni.

“The centre-right is united and convinced in its support for Berlusconi,” said far-right Lega leader Salvini on Thursday, seeking to dispel rumors of divisions on the right. His party, however, would already be at work on a plan B if the riderThe flop of the presidential candidacy.

Salvini and Meloni are torn between a desire to keep the center-right together and their reluctance to let Berlusconi reestablish his leadership on the bloc, Cotta said. “They know Berlusconi would take a lot of the limelight away from them,” he explained. “My hunch is they don’t want him in the presidency but don’t know how to say that.”

Given the calculations, Berlusconi’s chances of winning the presidency seem slim, Cotta said, while adding: “An accident is always possible – and that would send a very bad signal.”

Last month, journalists from the Daily fatto The newspaper launched a petition urging Italian lawmakers not to support the former prime minister on four occasions. “The president of the republic must be the guarantor of the constitution, [whereas] Silvio Berlusconi is the guarantor of corruption and prostitution,” they wrote in the petition, signed by more than 200,000 people.

In addition to his conviction for tax evasion, the billionaire’s litany of legal troubles “is not a minor issue”, Cotta acknowledged. “Berlusconi is neither above the fray nor legally ‘clean’. Some cases ended with his acquittal, others because the statute of limitations expired. Either way, they paint a profile that is not suited to the position of president.

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