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ROME — As a billionaire property tycoon, media magnate and three-time prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s career has already spanned decades.
In recent years, however, his profile has been much diminished. Thanks to illness, he has often appeared at party events by video link, and was banned from public office in Italy for four years after a tax fraud conviction.
Yet now 85, when most people his age would be putting their feet up, the former Italian prime minister has decided to stand for election. “That way everyone would be happy,” he told Rai radio with his inimitable self-assurance.
Bar a miracle, the election on September 25 is likely to produce a triumphant right-wing coalition, with Berlusconi as the kingmaker, buying him a position of influence for the next five years.
The comeback is the result of his sense of “duty,” he told POLITICO, in written answers to questions. Italy needs the values that only his party represents to restart the economy, he said. “My parents taught me that when I feel strongly in me the sense of duty to do something, I must find the courage to do it.”
Despite dominating Italian politics and media for two decades, not so long ago it seemed Berlusconi’s political career was behind him.
His image was tarnished by the so-called bunga bunga scandal, in which witnesses described orgies at his lavish villa outside Milan. In 2011, a surging national debt crisis and fears that Italy could default forced him to hand power to technocrat Mario Monti. He faced numerous prosecutions, before being finally ejected from the senate after a tax fraud conviction in 2013.
But the unexpected surge of nationalist populism over the past decade provided an opportunity for Berlusconi to carve out a role as a responsible pro-EU, moderate. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, although he has rarely attended votes. Last year, his rehabilitation seemed complete when he joined the grand coalition led by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, a mainstay of the European institutions.
Then, last month, apparently sensing a change in the political winds, he joined other coalition partners in pulling support for Draghi’s government, forcing snap elections that the right is on track to win. His three government ministers resigned from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, saying he was “irresponsible” and putting partisan interests ahead of the country.
Berlusconi denies any blame for the administration’s collapse, claiming: “We would have preferred that the Draghi government continue until the natural end of the legislature with elections in 2023 … This wasn’t possible because of the irresponsible behavior of the 5Stars and the ambiguous maneuvers of the Democrats. Therefore, “there was no other solution but to give the vote back to the people,” he said.
Support for Berlusconi, the junior partner in a right-wing alliance with Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League, is far reduced from his glory days of 2008, when his party took 37 percent of the vote. It is currently polling at around 8 percent. But together, the right-wing alliance parties are expected to take about 45 percent of the vote, which should be enough for a majority in parliament.
However, it is not just the Italian voters that the right needs to win over, but international bond traders, ratings agencies, European governments and institutions, anxious that the most right-wing government in Italy’s post-war history could pose a risk to democracy and Italy’s alliances in the EU and NATO.
If the international institutions are not convinced that heavily indebted Italy will be in safe hands, the cost of borrowing will skyrocket, and the government’s room for maneuver will be severely limited.
U-turn on Putin
One reason for these concerns has been warm relations by some in the alliance with far-right parties in other countries such as Vox in Spain, and with authoritarians such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The League signed a cooperation agreement in 2017 with United Russia, the party that supports Putin, and Salvini attempted a peace mission paid for by the Russian embassy earlier this year. Berlusconi has enjoyed a long friendship with Putin, even holidaying in his dacha and was forced to deny media reports earlier this month that he spoke to the Russian ambassador to Rome, and sympathized with Russia’s position.
Until now, his criticism of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been muted. But in his comments to POLITICO, Berlusconi unambiguously condemned his former friend: “Today Russia attacking Ukraine has violated international law and brought a painful war to the heart of Europe.”
Looking back on his time as premier, Berlusconi claimed he had worked to improve relations between Russia and the West. The NATO-Russia agreement of 2002, in Rome, “could have begun an era in which Russia became a partner and trusted interlocutor.” He said he was “deeply disappointed” with Putin.
Berlusconi denied that any of the parties in the right-wing alliance were extremist, claiming the coalition is center right, and said it “has nothing to do with extremist movements in other countries.”
“[We are] pro-Europe, pro-West, pro-NATO, with liberal democracy as our only reference point,” Berlusconi said. He added he would “not participate in any government” if he were not absolutely sure of its “democratic correctness, sense of responsibility and loyalty to Europe and the West.”
According to Berlusconi, it is the center left whose loyalties are questionable, as their coalition includes a far-left party that voted against Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
Despite his reduced profile, Berlusconi still has the ability to cause an uproar. Last week when discussing a proposed reform of the presidential system, he suggested that President Sergio Mattarella would, if it passed, have to resign. The comment was seen as an attack on Mattarella, the guarantor of Italy’s democratic checks and balances and the most popular politician in the country. Berlusconi’s adversaries accused the right of plotting to dismantle Italy’s democratic system and said Berlusconi wanted the role for himself. Berlusconi has denied any desire to become president.
Berlusconi could instead aspire to Italy’s second highest institutional role, president of the senate, but he would be a very controversial choice, and his allies have not so far endorsed him. Insiders said the election campaign had revitalized him. His campaign of video bulletins published on Facebook plays on 1990s nostalgia and a time-tested pitch of tax cuts and higher pensions.
Even without a formal institutional role, as long as he collects the votes he expects, Berlusconi will hold considerable power in the next government.
“If he gets 7 to 8 percent, as expected, it could make the difference between a clear victory for the right and a messy result,” said Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey. “He would be crucial to the survival of the coalition. And you can believe he will make his allies feel it.”
Ideologically, there is broad agreement between the right-wing alliance on an electoral program of tax cuts and immigration restrictions, and the far-right parties are looking unlikely to pander to their more extremist supporters. But Berlusconi can, if he wishes, draw a lot of red lines. Forza Italia’s position in the center means that it is the only one of the parties that could theoretically switch to support a left-leaning or technocratic government, without paying a high price with voters.
“He is essential. In the center he can play a lot of games,” said Albertazzi. “He can remain relevant for the next five years.”