Master trickster Silvio Berlusconi sees Italy’s top job

On paper, Rome’s Quirinale is too steep a hill to climb for Italy’s aging tycoon politicians, plagued by legal problems, health problems and a sulfur-rich reputation. But writing off Silvio Berlusconi is still a risky venture when he competes for the Italian presidency later this month.

Italy’s most talked about politician since World War II, Berlusconi was once described as a “disease that can only be cured by vaccination” by the country’s most famous post-war journalist, the late Indro Montanelli. The vaccine, Montanelli claimed on the eve of the 2001 general election, meant “a healthy injection of Berlusconi in the prime minister’s place, Berlusconi in the president’s place, Berlusconi in the pope’s place or wherever he wants. Only after that will we be immune.”

Montanelli was wrong about immunity, and so were the many other savvy people who wrote off Cavaliere (the Knight), time and time again, even as his political career – and 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 hell-bent on climbing the Quirinale, Rome’s highest hill and the seat of the Italian presidency. Always the narrator, he has portrayed his endeavor as the fulfillment of a childhood promise he once gave to his mother.

This week, Berlusconi summoned other right-wing leaders to his Roman villa in hopes of securing the support of his legislators as Parliament begins the lengthy process of electing Italy’s next head of state on January 24. He has also reached out to MPs from other political groups, including those considered most hostile to his candidacy, knowing that he will need to steal votes from rival camps if he is to succeed the outgoing president Sergio Mattarella.

Political vacuum

Berlusconi’s unlikely shot at the presidency, at the age of 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 sentenced to prison for tax fraud. and suspended from public office. Unsurprisingly, it has provoked confusion and entertainment, not least because the former prime minister is still on trial for bribing witnesses in a minor prostitution case linked to his infamous sex party “Bunga Bunga”.

Protesters hold placards with the text “The Quirinale is not a Bunga Bunga” in Rome on January 4, 2022. © Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters

Giuseppe Provenzano, deputy leader of the center-left Democratic Party, has described the offer as a “tragic joke”. However, analysts have warned against taking it lightly, noting that Berlusconi has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in the past.

“Berlusconi himself is really deadly serious,” said Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. He suggested that the current state of Italian politics gave the former prime minister an outside chance to squeak through.

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

Go, Italy!

Two decades before France’s Emmanuel Macron pulled a political party out of his hat and conjured up an Élysée Palace victory, Berlusconi, a media mogul with no political credentials, did the same trick in Italy – and in half the time. Staffed with costume marketing strategists, Forza Italia (Go, Italy) was only five months old when its founder took power in the spring of 1994. While his first, grossly inexperienced administration soon collapsed, the tycoon politician would continue to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades. back with additional election triumphs in 2001 and 2008.

It would take a combination of the eurozone’s debt crisis, a bitter party split and eerie stories of orgies with showgirls and prostitutes in his private residence to finally push Berlusconi out of office for the last time in 2011, amid mockery of protesters gathered in central Rome to celebrate his departure. His legal problems eventually caught up with him the following year when he was jailed for tax fraud and barred from office, even though his prison sentence was commuted due to his advanced age.

Since then, Berlusconi has continued to work in the shadows and taken on the role of kingmaker. Now he wants his place back in the spotlight.

“Being elected to the Quirinale would seal his revenge after being shut out of Parliament because of his legal problems,” Cotta said. “It would justify Berlusconi’s claims of a conspiracy against him and mark the peak of his political career.”

Back on the market

The pinnacle of Italy’s political system, the Quirinale, lies somewhere between France’s powerful presidency and its largely ceremonial role as a German head of state. Its significant powers are most evident in times of political instability – which Italy has no shortage of.

“When political parties can govern the country themselves, the president tends to take a back seat,” Cotta said. “However, it is increasingly common for parliament to be locked in, forcing the president to step in. That pattern is likely to continue in the near future, with no immediate prospect of establishing a strong coalition.”

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

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

The former head of the European Central Bank has been named the strongest potential candidate for the presidency. But analysts have expressed concern that a premature withdrawal of Draghi would upset the delicate balance of power in his government, just as Italy is recovering from the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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

Berlusconi is trying to clear his own credentials and has made himself an experienced statesman who can step over the political quarrel. In November last year, he sent an anthology of his speeches to almost all of the approximately 1,000 MEPs who will elect the next president. He recently praised a welfare system for citizens’ incomes advocated by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an attempt to oust some of its members – usually among his worst enemies.

The former housing, advertising and media magnate, who made his first money selling door-to-door vacuum cleaners, is doing everything he can to promote his candidacy. According to the Italian daily La Repubblica, he spent much of the Christmas weekend handing out greetings, gifts and making personal phone calls to lawmakers from left, right and center.

“Berlusconi is desperate for the job. He does everything he can to get it and collects votes one by one,” Cotta said.

“Guarantor of corruption”

Quirinale candidates must win two-thirds of the vote to win the presidency. But if no one reaches that goal in the first three rounds, which is generally the case, the bar is lowered to 50% of the votes plus one.

To clear the bar, Berlusconi hopes to get about 50 votes from a pool of 113 “unconnected” lawmakers, while gaining overwhelming support from the center-right bloc. It would require the official approval of nationalist right-wing extremists Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, both of whom have offered only lukewarm support so far.

Salvini and Meloni are torn between a desire to keep the center-right united and their unwillingness to let Berlusconi re-establish his leadership across the bloc, Cotta said. “They know Berlusconi would take a lot of the limelight away from them,” he explained. “My guess is that they do not want him in the presidency but do not know how to say it.”

In terms of mathematics, Berlusconi’s chances of winning the presidency seem small, Cotta said, but added: “An accident is always possible – and it would send out a very bad signal.”

Last month, journalists at the newspaper Fatto Quotidiano launched a petition urging Italian lawmakers not to support the four-time former prime minister. “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 appeal, signed by more than 200,000 people.

In addition to his conviction for tax fraud, the billionaire’s litany of legal problems is “no less a problem”, Cotta agreed. “Berlusconi is neither over the fight, nor legally ‘pure.’

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