On paper, Rome’s Quirinale is too steep a hill to climb for the aging Italian politician-mogul, struggling with legal woes, health issues and a sulphurous reputation. But dismissing Silvio Berlusconi is still a risky bet as he runs for the Italian presidency later this month.
The most talked about Italian politician since World War II, Berlusconi has been described as a “disease that can only be cured with 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 in the Prime Minister’s seat, Berlusconi in the President’s seat, Berlusconi in the Pope’s seat or wherever he wishes.” It is only after that that we will be immune. ”
Montanelli was wrong about immunity, as were the many other experts who struck out the Horsewoman (the Knight), time and time again, even as his political career – and his popularity – grew.
After having served all or part of four separate terms as Prime Minister, longer than any other leader since Benito Mussolini, Berlusconi is now determined to climb the Quirinale, the highest hill in Rome and seat of the Italian presidency. Always a storyteller, he described his quest as the fulfillment of a childhood promise he made to his mother.
This week, Berlusconi summoned other right-wing leaders to his Roman villa, hoping to gain the support of their lawmakers when parliament begins the long process of electing Italy’s next head of state on January 24. He also contacted MPs from other political parties. groups, including those deemed most hostile to his candidacy, knowing that he will have to poach the voices of rival camps if he wants to succeed outgoing president Sergio Mattarella.
Berlusconi’s unlikely coup to the presidency, at the age of 85, comes just over a year after being critically ill with Covid-19, five years after undergoing open heart surgery and a decade after having was sentenced to prison for tax evasion and expelled from public service. Unsurprisingly, this aroused perplexity and amusement, not least because the former prime minister is still on trial for allegedly bribing witnesses in a child prostitution case linked to his famous “Bunga Bunga” sex parties.
Giuseppe Provenzano, deputy leader of the center-left Democratic Party, called the candidacy a “tragic joke”. Analysts cautioned against taking it lightly, however, noting that Berlusconi has already overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
“Berlusconi himself is certainly very serious,” said Maurizio Cotta, professor of political science at the University of Siena. He suggested that the current state of Italian political flow has given the former prime minister an outside chance to get out of it.
“There is currently no strong political majority in the country and no political leader with a clear strategy,” Cotta explained. “Berlusconi is making the most 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 mentioned a victory at the Elysee Palace, Berlusconi, a media mogul with no political references, pulled the same trick in Italy – and in half the time . With marketing strategists in business suits, Forza Italy (Go, Italy) was only five months old when its founder came to power in the spring of 1994. While his grossly inexperienced first administration quickly collapsed, the political mogul would dominate Italian politics for the next two decades. , rebounding with new electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2008.
It would take a combination of the eurozone debt crisis, a bitter party split, and gruesome tales of orgies featuring showgirls and prostitutes in his private residence to ultimately push Berlusconi out of office for the last time in 2011, amid taunts from demonstrators 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 evasion and expelled from office, although his prison term 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 Quirinale would seal his revenge after being kicked out of Parliament because of his legal problems,” Cotta said. “It would justify Berlusconi’s claims of a plot against him and mark the height of his political career.”
Back on the market
The pinnacle of the Italian political system, the Quirinal sits somewhere between the powerful French presidency and the largely ceremonial role of a German head of state. Its important powers are more apparent in times of political instability – of which Italy is not lacking.
“When political parties can run the country on their own, the president tends to take a back seat,” Cotta said. “However, it is increasingly common for parliament to find itself in an impasse, forcing the president to intervene. This pattern is expected 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 bringing together coalitions, approving or vetoing ministerial appointments, and appointing technocratic cabinets and prime ministers – including current Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
The former head of the European Central Bank has been presented as the strongest potential candidate for the presidency. But analysts have expressed concern that Draghi’s untimely exit could upset the delicate balance of power within 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 steps from the prime minister’s office to the presidency.
Seeking to polish his own credentials, Berlusconi presented himself as an experienced statesman who can transcend the political fray. Last November, he sent an anthology of his speeches to almost all of the 1,000 or so deputies who will elect the next president. He recently praised a citizen income protection scheme championed by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an attempt to influence some of its members – normally among its worst enemies.
The former real estate, advertising and media mogul, who made his first money selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, is doing everything to market his candidacy. According to the Italian daily The Republic, he spent much of the Christmas season distributing greetings, gifts and making in-person phone calls to lawmakers on the left, right and center.
“Berlusconi is desperate for the job. He’s doing whatever he can to get it, collecting votes one by one, ”Cotta said. “He’s still the great persuader; an outstanding seller and in this case a seller of himself.
“Guarantor of corruption”
Candidates for the Quirinal must win two-thirds of the votes to win the presidency. But if no one hits that target in the first three rounds, as is usually the case, the bar is lowered to 50% plus one.
To clear the bar, Berlusconi hopes to secure around 50 votes out of a pool of 113 “unaffiliated” lawmakers, while also gaining overwhelming support from the center-right bloc. This would require official approval from right-wing nationalists Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, who have so far offered only mixed support.
Salvini and Meloni are torn between the desire to keep the center-right united and their reluctance to let Berlusconi reestablish his leadership on the bloc, Cotta said. “They know Berlusconi would take away a lot of the limelight from them,” he explained. “My hunch is that they don’t want him in the president’s seat but don’t know how to say it.”
Given the calculations, Berlusconi’s chances of winning the presidency appear slim, Cotta said, while adding: “An accident is always possible – and that would send a very bad signal.”
Last month, journalists from Fatto Quotidiano newspaper launched a petition urging Italian lawmakers not to back the former prime minister four times. “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 tax evasion conviction, the billionaire’s litany of legal issues “are not a minor issue,” Cotta agreed. “Berlusconi is neither above the fray, nor legally ‘clean’. Some cases ended with his acquittal, others because the limitation period had expired. Either way, they paint a profile that is not suited to the post of president. “