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Berlusconi's back: Understanding the enduring popularity of Italy's 'immortal' former PM

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Berlusconi's back: Understanding the enduring popularity of Italy's 'immortal' former PM
Silvio Berlusconi speaks on Italian television. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
15:09 CET+01:00
How is it possible that an 81-year-old best known for a sex scandal and banned from office over tax fraud continues to be a political force in Italy? The Local looks at the enduring enigma that is Silvio Berlusconi.

UPDATE, May 14th 2018: Since this article was first published, Berlusconi's ban on public office has been overturned. The decision came after the March 4th election, in which his Forza Italia party lost votes to become the second-largest party in a right-wing bloc behind the nationalist League.

As a whole, the bloc became the largest faction in parliament with some 37 percent, but didn't have the votes to form a majority. Since the election the alliance, now led by Matteo Salvini of the League, has been locked in negotiations with the Five Star Movement (M5S), the single biggest party with 33 percent of the vote, which insisted it would not work with Berlusconi or Forza Italia. The League and the M5S are poised to announce a coalition in which Berlusconi will not play a role. 

If the talks should fail and new elections be called, however, Berlusconi will be able to run thanks to a court decision that cancels the effects of his tax fraud conviction. This article looks at why some Italians would still consider voting for him, even today.  

Berlusconi, the ex-media magnate turned four-time PM, resigned from office in 2011 after losing his parliamentary majority, as the country was engulfed by an economic crisis from which it has barely recovered.

One year later, he was banned from holding public office due to a tax fraud conviction. It was the first to stick in two decades of investigations for accusations ranging from mafia association to bribery. Many political observers declared his long stint in politics over, but he has somehow engineered a remarkable comeback.

"Nothing in the Italian political system surprises me anymore," Francesco Ricatti, a Melbourne professor in Italian Studies, tells The Local.

With coalition partners Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini of the Northern League. Photo: AFP Photo/Livio Anticoli

So how can Berlusconi's enduring appeal possibly be explained?

He wins over the elderly elite

Firstly, at 81, Berlusconi's age is more of an asset than a handicap in the Italian political landscape. He's over twice as old as Italy's previous prime minister, Matteo Renzi, was when he came to power, but Renzi was very much the exception to the rule. The country has the world's second-largest ageing population and over-60s dominate many areas of Italian society.

Crucially, this is not only a huge age group, but also the one most likely to vote.

Many of the centre-right's policies, such as a pledge to double minimum pensions and introduce free dental and eye care for the elderly, are clearly designed to win over older Italians. This contrasts with the approach of his rivals. The ruling Democratic Party (PD) is vying for the vote of students and professionals with promises to reform hiring policies in a bid to create more jobs. 

He's a (very rich) man of the people

Meanwhile Berlusconi, billionaire though he is, presents himself as fighting for the man on the street, regularly referring to housewives and the unemployed in his many TV interviews.

Alongside pensions and elderly healthcare, other key centre-right pledges – a low, flat tax; scrapping inheritance and road tax; discounts on public transport and free vet care – have a broad appeal. The immediate benefit of VAT-free pet food or a lower tax rate is easy for the ordinary voter to understand, unlike the PD's plans to change hiring legislation.


Berlusconi has done a lot of talking about money and tax on the election campaign. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The coalition broadens Berlusconi's appeal even further, Professor Ricatti explains.

"The coalition with the extreme right is one that can better represent anxious Italians who have been losing ground due to the economic and political crisis and who manifest their frustration against other social groups who are even weaker, especially migrants and refugees," he says. "It also serves the purpose of those many Italians who continue to make money by not always transparent or honest means."

He's an old-media mogul

One of the most-discussed reasons for Berlusconi's success in politics is his media background. He retains a controlling stake in the TV network he founded, Mediaset, and his media empire – he also owned Italy's largest publishing house and a daily newspaper – helped him gain and hold on to power in past elections.

“He represented the flowering of the politics of celebrity and the personalization of electoral politics in the political vacuum of the time (the early 1990s, when Berlusconi first rose to prominence)," John Agnew, political geographer and co-author of the book Mapping Berlusconi's Italy, tells The Local. "Of course, he also wished to protect his business interests in a time of political flux by involving himself directly in electoral politics.”

Though digital and social media increasingly dominate the media landscape, traditional media still has a lot of power in Italy. According to a 2017 survey, only 60 percent of Italians use the internet, the second lowest rate across the EU. So while the Five Star Movement is courting younger voters on social media, Berlusconi's elderly supporters are more likely to trust TV.

However, the 81-year-old has recently become a prolific user of Instagram and Donald Trump's preferred platform, Twitter, where he regularly live-tweets quotes from his TV appearances.

He's a master of personality politics

An expert in cultivating his public image, Berlusconi has spent the years following his tax fraud conviction presenting himself as a rehabilitated man. He completed his community service at a care home, has moved on from the days of "bunga bunga" to settle down with his 32-year-old girlfriend, and gained publicity for his new vegetarian diet and love of animals.

Policies and parties help explain why the comeback is working, but a lot of it is down to the man himself, who boasts a loyal base of supporters. One fan club dedicated to the politician on Facebook counts almost 10,000 members. In the clip below, a 2008 campaign video from Forza Italia's predecessor, the People of Freedom, ordinary Italians (or at least, actors posing as such) sing 'Thank goodness Silvio's there'. 

Italian voters forgive...

He could probably have only pulled off this feat in Italy. In the UK, France, or Germany, voters are far less forgiving of scandal and incidents that are a minor gaffe for Berlusconi could have finished off the career of a politician in one of those countries. In France, for example, Francois Fillon, the centre-right frontrunner in the most recent presidential race, failed to make the run-off after a scandal over a taxpayer-funded alleged fake job for his wife.

Publications in Italy and worldwide have described Berlusconi's new image as that of a nonno or "granddad" for Italy. This sums up the sense of familiar comfort Berlusconi clearly hopes to convey to voters. After concerns were raised over his health when he missed some TV appearances, he reassured his supporters: "Grandpa's well, and he'll show you all" (literally: 'Il nonno sta benissimo! E farà vedere i sorci verdi a tutti!', using an idiom that originates from Benito Mussolini's boasts about the Italian Air Force).

Now, he's positioning himself as the only person who can sort out Italy's mess, and plenty of commenters – even some of his critics – are inclined to agree.

... and they get nostalgic

Berlusconi shares a background in real estate and media with Donald Trump, as well as a love of political incorrectness. But the Italian is reported to dislike the comparisons of the two, and one thing he's got that Trump lacks when he came to power is decades of political experience. This is what he's hoping to capitalize on in the upcoming election.

Click on SilvioBerlusconi.it and you'll be redirected to governiberlusconi.it, a website listing everything he claims he achieved during his time in office.

“Even though [Berlusconi] is widely seen as a failed politician, fading memories make it possible for him to reinvent himself, at least in some quarters, as a reborn savior," says political geographer and author John Agnew. "The religious language is deliberate on my part! This is someone who in 2006 compared himself to Jesus."

READ ALSO: Berlusconi could save Italy from 'Trump-style populists': Ex-Economist editor


The media magnate is at home in front of a studio audience. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Vague ideas of nostalgia played an important rule in some of the big votes of 2016: there's a reason why Trump vowed to "make America great again" and Brexiteers claimed they wanted to "get our country back".

These campaigns didn't promise radical changes, a brand new future with exciting possibilities (contrast this to Emmanuel Macron's success in France, heading a fresh political movement with a name meaning 'On the Move'): they promised a safe retreat.

The alternatives aren't any more convincing

Why is this so appealing in Italy, a country which is arguably crying out for drastic reforms to boost the economy and revive the jobs market? The answer lies largely in the alternatives to Berlusconi, who emerges as the lesser of the possible evils.

Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S) portrays itself as anti-establishment, but it is perhaps too radical for many voters. Unlike many of Europe's other populist parties, its goal is to do away with almost all of the entire existing parliamentary system. It's also lost the advantage of being the new kids on the block, and Rome mayor Virginia Raggi has faced accusations of failing to address key issues, such as the capital's rubbish crisis, in over 18 months in power. So, while still a force to be reckoned with, the M5S is in the odd position of being criticized both of being too similar to the old, tired establishment but simultaneously too radically different. 

A new direction for Italy's Five Star Movement? Beppe Grillo distances himself from the party he foundedFive Star leaders, old and new: Beppe Grillo (L) and Luigi Di Maio. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

"Berlusconi can once more appear as the guy on the white horse, riding in the save the country from chaos. The M5S candidate for prime minister [Luigi Di Maio] is a complete political neophyte, so Berlusconi, the quintessential anti-politician, can campaign as a more experienced leader, even though he is banned from political office until 2020," says Agnew.

READ ALSO: Italy's Five Star Movement faces some familiar problems ahead of the election

Meanwhile the governing centre-left is suffering from serious divisions that have lost it support. A lot of this has been caused by Renzi, who was widely seen as trying to change too much, too fast, without gaining enough support either within his own party or among the public. This lost him a referendum on which he had staked his position, and has drastically weakened his and his party's popularity.

Ex-PM Renzi's dad investigated for 'influence trafficking'
Renzi speaking after losing the referendum. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

He has a gift for coalitions

Agnew argues that Berlusconi’s coalition-building is the crux of his success and far more important than his media background.

When he first rose to power, political affiliations based on strong party identifications were giving way to splits based on issues such as abortion and divorce. Back in 1994, Italy’s historic postwar parties were collapsing due a widespread corruption scandal, and Berlusconi saw a gap.

“He realized that he couldn't win alone in the electoral system that Italy acquired in 1993 so he teamed up with Northern League and Alleanza Nazionale, which already had distinctive regional constituencies, the former in the north and the latter in Rome and the south, to distribute candidates and stand together as a potential government," Agnew explains.

Today, the M5S has scooped up votes from both the centre-left and the centre-right – leaving both sides, which have dominated Italian politics since the Second World War, unable to win alone. Because of this, and recent changes to Italy's electoral system, cross-party coalitions are essential to win this year's election.

So his comeback has the aim of "trying to align a set of political groupings with different social-geographical constituencies: the League once more (although it is no longer a strictly northern party but a right-wing anti-immigrant one) and Fratelli d'Italia (a neo-fascist party with electoral strength in Rome and parts of the south),” according to Agnew.

This means the alliance with parties further to the right, each with strongholds in different parts of the country, looks to many like the most stable option.

But even better for Berlusconi is the fact that if this coalition doesn't pass the necessary threshold to govern, he has a second option: forming a grand coalition with the PD after the vote. This option isn't open to the Northern League, whose political stance is too far removed from that of the PD, or the M5S, unless it does some significant back-pedalling. And because of its own internal rifts, the PD will be unlikely to do without Berlusconi's help.

"I think that if Italy had a strong and unified social-democratic party, Berlusconi would lose," says Professor Ricatti.

"However, the political inability and divisiveness of the centre-left coalition, and the disrupting role of the M5S, mean that with the current electoral system there is a high change nobody will gain a majority. Berlusconi can only benefit from that situation."

And if there's one thing Berlusconi is a master at, it's grabbing any opportunity handed to him with both hands.

 

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