‘A tragic joke’: Master trickster Silvio Berlusconi eyes Italy’s top job

On paper, Rome’s Quirinale is too steep a hill to climb for Italy’s ageing tycoon-politician, saddled with legal woes, health problems and a sulphurous reputation. But writing off Silvio Berlusconi is still a risky bet as he vies 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 through vaccination” by the country’s best known postwar 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 else he may want. Only after that will we be immune.” 

Montanelli was wrong about immunity, and so were the many other pundits who wrote off the Cavaliere (the Knight), time and time again, even as his political career – and popularity – powered on.

Having served 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, the highest hill in Rome and the seat of the Italian presidency. Always the storyteller, he has portrayed his quest as the fulfilment of a childhood promise he once made to his mother.

This week, Berlusconi summoned other right-wing leaders to his Roman villa, hoping to secure the backing of their lawmakers when 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 deemed most hostile to his candidacy, knowing he will need to poach 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 severely ill with Covid-19, five years after he underwent open-heart surgery, and a decade after he was sentenced to jail for tax fraud and barred from public office. Unsurprisingly, it has elicited bafflement and amusement, not least because the former premier is still on trial for allegedly bribing witnesses in an underage prostitution case tied to his notorious “Bunga Bunga” sex parties. 

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

Giuseppe Provenzano, deputy leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, has described the bid as a “tragic joke”. Analysts, however, have warned against taking it lightly, noting that Berlusconi has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds before.

“Berlusconi himself is certainly dead serious,” said Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. He suggested that the current state of flux of Italian politics gave the former prime minister an outside chance of squeaking 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 most of this vacuum, just like he did back in 1994, following the collapse of the old postwar parties.”

Go, Italy!

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

It would take a combination of the eurozone’s debt crisis, a bitter party split, and lurid accounts of orgies featuring showgirls and prostitutes at his private residence to finally push Berlusconi out of office for the last time in 2011, amid the jeers of protesters gathered in central Rome to celebrate his departure. His legal woes finally caught up with him the next year when he was jailed for tax fraud and barred from office, though his prison sentence was commuted owing to his advanced age. 

Since then, Berlusconi has continued to operate in the shadows, taking on a kingmaker role. Now he wants his place back in the limelight.

“Being elected to the Quirinale would seal his revenge after having been shut out of parliament over his legal problems,” said Cotta. “It would vindicate Berlusconi’s claims of a conspiracy against him and mark the apex of his political career.”

Back on the market

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

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

In recent years, Italian presidents have played decisive roles in cobbling together coalitions, approving or vetoing ministerial appointments, and appointing technocratic cabinets and prime ministers – including the current premier, Mario Draghi. 

The Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome, the seat of the Italian presidency.
The Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome, the 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 have expressed concern that a premature exit by Draghi would upset the delicate balance of power in his government, just as Italy is emerging from the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. 

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

Seeking to burnish his own credentials, Berlusconi has cast himself as an experienced statesman who can step above the political fray. Last November he sent an anthology of his speeches to almost all the roughly 1,000 members of parliament who will elect the next president. He recently praised a citizens’ income welfare scheme championed by the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement in an attempt to sway some of its members – normally among his worst foes.

The former housing, advertising and media tycoon, who made his first money selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, is pulling all the stops to market his candidacy. According to Italian daily La Repubblica, he spent much of the Christmas holiday season dispensing greetings, gifts and making in-person phone calls to lawmakers from left, right and centre.

“Berlusconi is desperate for the job. He’s doing everything he can to get it, collecting votes one by one,” said Cotta. “He is still the great persuader; an unrivalled salesman and in this case a salesman of himself.” 

‘Guarantor of corruption’

Candidates for the Quirinale need to win two-thirds of votes to clinch the presidency. But if no one reaches that target in the first three rounds, as is generally the case, the bar is lowered to 50% of votes plus one.

To clear the bar, Berlusconi is hoping to sway around 50 votes from a pool of 113 “unaffiliated” lawmakers, while also securing overwhelming backing from the centre-right block. That would require the official endorsement of nationalist right-wingers 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 centre-right united and their reluctance to let Berlusconi reestablish his leadership over the bloc, said Cotta. “They know Berlusconi would take a lot of the limelight away 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 so.”

Given the maths, Berlusconi’s chances of clinching the presidency appear slim, Cotta said, though adding: “An accident is always possible – and it would send out a very bad signal.”

Last month, journalists at the Fatto Quotidiano newspaper launched a petition urging Italian lawmakers not to give the four-time former prime minister their backing. “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.

On top of his conviction for tax fraud, the billionaire’s litany of legal troubles “are no minor problem,” Cotta agreed. “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 unfit for the president’s job.”

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