Silvio Berlusconi is a longshot for Italian president — but a likely kingmaker

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ROME — Silvio Berlusconi’s moonshot at the Italian presidency is about to come crashing down to earth — but at least everyone’s watching.

The three-time prime minister, known for hosting Italy’s most famous sex parties since Caligula, is bidding to become the next Italian president when the incumbent Sergio Mattarella’s seven-year term ends at the end of this month.

Yet his unorthodox backdoor canvassing operation, codenamed Operation Squirrel, seems to have fallen flat. His self-aggrandizing newspaper ads and attempts to lobby the lawmakers and regional delegates who vote for president have trashed the convention of reserve among presidential hopefuls and even drawn some ridicule. 

“He introduced himself as Mr. Bunga Bunga,” Bianca Laura Granato, an independent senator who received a phone call from Berlusconi, said in a radio interview. Granato claimed she laughed but was not ultimately convinced.

Berlusconi, not known for his humility, has been pushing some outlandish claims about his achievements during his campaign. One full-page newspaper ad last week credited him with ending the Cold War, referring to a 2002 deal Berlusconi set up between the U.S. and Russia in Rome — more than a decade after the Cold War ended. And it boasts that he received the votes of 200 million Italians. There are about 60 million Italians in Italy.

“Most appreciated and authoritative Italian leader … capable of personal friendships with world leaders,” the ad gushed. “Friend of everyone and enemy of no one.” Predictably, Twitter had a field day.

While Berlusconi’s achievements over a 65-year career in business and politics may be notable, few believe the 85-year-old politician can ascend to the venerable status of Italian president, an influential if often ceremonial post traditionally reserved for establishment figures with unimpeachable résumés.

But his insistence on running, and strong-arming his allies into supporting him, is blocking negotiations on an alternative candidate that could secure cross-party support. Even Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the most qualified candidate, has so far been obstructed by Berlusconi’s positioning.

Yet that insistence has also raised the possibility that he could ultimately choose the winner, pivoting his supporters toward another candidate at the last minute. Essentially, it has ensured Berlusconi’s place at the center of proceedings, right where he likes it.

Comeback king

After a resounding rise to prime minister in 1994, Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for two decades. On the international stage, he was notorious for his gaffes and awkward jokes — comparing MEP Martin Schulz to a concentration camp guard, calling Barack Obama “suntanned.” In Italy, though, his everyman style had populist appeal.

After being forced out of office in 2011, at the height of the eurozone debt crisis, Berlusconi found himself entrenched in legal battles, including a trial over accusations he had sex with an underage nightclub dancer. He was banned from public office after being convicted of tax fraud.

But he remained leader of the Forza Italia party and in recent years has staged a remarkable comeback. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019 (where he has skipped more voting sessions than any other MEP).

Giovanni Orsina, a professor of political history at Luiss University in Rome and author of a book on Berlusconi, attributed the politician’s survival to his “tenacity and vitality of persona, access to TV and money,” which has enabled him to maintain a strong image, “despite all his misadventures.”

Meanwhile, European leaders have increasingly shown that Berlusconi’s unwaveringly pro-EU position makes him a useful ally to counter the surge of nationalist and populist sentiment in Italy and the European Parliament.

He helped vote European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen into office, and when his party entered the government of former European Central Bank President Draghi last year, his rehabilitation into the European establishment was all but complete. The presidency would be the icing on the cake.

Even Manfred Weber, leader of the European Parliament’s large, center-right political group, last week endorsed Berlusconi as “a strong leader” who “deserved the opportunity to show that he can unite.”

Divisive

Berlusconi’s allies insist he is well-qualified for the role.

“He has long experience in business, sport, politics and international relations, and was the longest in government of any Italian prime minister,” Senator Maurizio Gasparri, a former minister in Berlusconi’s government, told POLITICO. “Whatever he has done in life, he has been the best.”

A recent poll by Nando Pagnoncelli for La 7 channel placed Berlusconi second in the race with the public, with 14 percent backing him as Italy’s new president.

Mindful of the fact that Italy’s current coalition government includes Berlusconi’s party — other leaders like Enrico Letta of the center-left Democrats have exercised restraint in opposing Berlusconi. Letta merely called him “divisive.”

Gasparri pointed out that Berlusconi had often cooperated with the left in government: “Until a few weeks ago [Berlusconi] was eulogized by the left, who kept saying how wise he has become. Now he is their enemy, a criminal.”

But opponents argue that the presidency, Italy’s highest office, is supposed to be the ultimate political arbiter. The president is head of the judiciary, guarantor of the constitution and appoints the prime minister — a vital task in moments of political gridlock. Berlusconi, they point out, is one of the most polarizing figures in recent Italian history and entered politics at least partly as a means to protect himself from judicial probes. Anti-Berlusconi activists have demonstrated against his desired comeback.

Fondazione Basso, a left-wing research institute, published a petition published this week signed by three former presidents of the Constitutional Court of Italy that argued Berlusconi is “the protagonist of a long conflict which has divided our country.” His past criminal convictions and ongoing legal troubles are disqualifying, they added.

Berlusconi, they said, “does not have the qualities to carry out the functions of the head of state. We see his candidacy as an offense to the dignity of the republic and millions of Italian citizens.”

‘Minimal’ chances

Ultimately, though, the only voters Berlusconi needs to win over are among the 1,009 parliamentarians and regional delegates who elect the president.

If he runs, Berlusconi has the support (in theory) of his allies on the right: Giorgia Meloni, who leads the Brothers of Italy, and Matteo Salvini, who helms the League. The alliance has a long-standing pact to run together in elections. But the right doesn’t have the numbers to win outright, meaning they need support from independents.

One possibility could be that Berlusconi benefits from anxiety over whether a Draghi presidency — and inevitably a new prime minister — would fracture Italy’s unwieldy coalition government, prompting early elections.

With parliament set to be downsized by one-third after the next election, many Italian lawmakers unlikely to be reselected are mindful of voting tactically to keep Draghi in place until the legislature’s scheduled end in 2023.

Still, to win, Berlusconi would have to win over nearly all of the undecided independents, in addition to every single voter on the right.

Currently, the right has 452 votes on paper, short of the needed 505 for a majority. Political scientist Roberto D’Alimonte, founder of the Centro Italiano Studi Elettorali, calculated that even with no defections, Berlusconi would still need 53 of 60 possibly available independents.

That makes his chances of becoming president “minimal,” D’Alimonte said.  

Vittorio Sgarbi, a former culture minister who said he has been helping Berlusconi tap supporters, appeared to land a death blow on Tuesday, saying the numbers could not be found. He declared the operation over. “Everything is at a stand-still,” he said. A representative for Berlusconi said Sgarbi had not been officially asked to canvas.

Kingmaker?

Now Berlusconi must decide: Does he bet the house, staking his reputation on possibly becoming president knowing he will almost certainly fail? Or does he withdraw and play the role of kingmaker and put forward a non-partisan candidate like Draghi?

“He can now initiate the president,” Sgarbi told POLITICO. “This is the best possible result.”

The Berlusconi representative said that the long-time Italian politician, as the best known international figure on the right, had been put forward by his allies as their candidate but was still considering whether or not to stand.

Assuming Berlusconi ultimately does step back, his influence over Salvini and Meloni could be transferrable to another candidate, according to Orsina, the historian.  

“He is in a strategic position, with important leverage, which he is exploiting for his own candidacy, but if it doesn’t work, that leverage also puts him in a strong position when it comes to proposing other candidates,” he said.

Timing is now paramount, Orsina added: “The sooner he withdraws the easier it will be for the center right to maintain control. If he withdraws and proposes a strong candidate such as Draghi it will be hard to oppose him.”

It may not be the career capstone Berlusconi had hoped for, but it does leave the consummate performer, once again, in a position he can’t resist: The center of attention.



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