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Who is Silvio Berlusconi? The four-time PM seeking ‘one last win’

Despite a fraud conviction and sex scandal, Italy's 81-year-old former leader Silvio Berlusconi has one last political victory in his sights in general elections less than two weeks away.

Who is Silvio Berlusconi? The four-time PM seeking 'one last win'
Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Temporarily banned from returning to public office himself, the billionaire media mogul still hopes to influence the country's political direction by leading a right-wing coalition in the March 4th polls.

“I'm pretty confident of the result of the election and going to form a government with our centre-right allies,” he told a rally of youth activists from his Forza Italia party in Rome on Wednesday, in a typically outspoken
address.

“I can tell you how to stay young,” he added. “I'll tell you the brand of my suppositories.”

Political cheat sheet: Understanding Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party
Photo: Eliano Imperiato/AFP

Berlusconi “wants to win one last time before retiring,” his biographer Alan Friedman was quoted as saying by the Corriere della Sera newspaper. The three-time former prime minister heads a coalition made up of Forza Italia and two far-right forces: the League and Brothers of Italy.

Recent opinion polls indicate the coalition has about 38 percent support overall — the highest score out of Italy's three major electoral groupings.

But it falls short of a majority and surveys suggest millions of voters remain undecided.

Tax, sex scandals 

Berlusconi is banned from public office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction.

He also faces charges that he bribed witnesses to lie at his earlier trial for paying for sex with a minor.

In spite of it all, he remains the leading figure of the Italian right almost a quarter of a century after first taking power.

His own party has surged by eight points to 18 percent support in the opinion polls in the past year.

Forza Italia's edge in the polls would give Berlusconi the upper hand in naming the coalition's pick for prime minister.

Berlusconi's back: Understanding the enduring popularity of Italy's 'immortal' former PM
Photo: Livio Anticoli/AFP

He and his coalition partners would field wildly different candidates, as they have little in common apart from a desire to win.

Berlusconi and the League's leader Matteo Salvini “can't stand each other,” says Roberto D'Alimonte, director of the political science department at Luiss University in Rome.

First the coalition would need to win a working majority.

This year's election is the first under a complex electoral law introduced last year.

A mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-post, it enables a party or coalition to obtain a majority with around 40 to 45 percent of the vote — which may be just out of the right-wing coalition's reach.

Economic promises 

The coalition spans the range of Italian right-wing politics, from the pro-European conservative moderates within Forza Italia to former northern secessionists the League and Brothers of Italy, which has roots in post-war neo-fascism.

Together they form a broad church that is ahead of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left coalition led by the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD), who are respectively polling at around 28 and 27 percent.

In the tight three-way fight, candidates have made economic promises that have observers scratching their heads given Italy's huge public debt, which at 132 percent of GDP is one of the highest in Europe.

READ MORE: These are the promises Italy's political parties have made to voters

Berlusconi says he wouldn't have sent police to block Catalan vote
Photo: John Thys/AFP

The leading parties are promising everything from the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to higher pensions and lower taxes.

One of the M5S's flagship proposals is a monthly universal basic income of 780 euros for those living in poverty.

La Stampa newspaper calculated that Italy would need to spend “the stratospheric sum” of over one trillion euros to make them all a reality.

None of these big promises will be fulfilled if no group wins a majority under the new system.

In that case, the PD under current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni could remain in power, at least for the next few months.

Pro-European forces within the PD and Forza Italia could create a German-style grand coalition. Or euro-sceptics from the League and the Five Star Movement could team up.

By Terence Daley

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Italians on Saturday braced for seismic change, on the eve of an election forecast to hand Italy the most right-wing government since World War II.

On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Out with internationally respected Mario Draghi and in — polls say — with Eurosceptic Giorgia Meloni, head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, who is widely tipped to become the country’s first woman to head a government.

“The country is eager for a change, a new face,” Wolfango Piccoli of the London-based political risk consultancy Teneo told AFP.

Italy is battling a series of crises, from rampant inflation and extreme weather events linked to climate change, to an energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

The campaign, sparked by Draghi’s downfall in July, wrapped up on Friday, giving Italians a day of reprieve as electioneering is banned until the vote.

People who spoke to AFP in Rome on Saturday said they were unsure the day before the election as the latest polls show that the Brothers of Italy party is likely to win and form a government.

“I am worried by the fact that the polls have the right-wing as the winner, especially Giorgia Meloni,” said Maria Tasca, a 27-year-old student originally from Sicily.

‘No magic solution’

“From what she has said on women’s rights, on young people’s rights, on rights in general, I see things going backwards by at least 50 years,” Tasca added.

“The problems are worldwide, there’s no magic solution. But sometimes you have to change,” said a 75-year-old shop owner, who gave his name only as Dante.

Meloni, 45, has worked hard over the past few weeks to reassure skittish investors and an anxious Brussels that her party’s historic ties to supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini are a thing of the past.

She has softened her tone and posted a video of herself on TikTok making traditional pastries from the Puglia region.

But she channelled warrior Aragorn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on Thursday at the closing rally for the right-wing coalition, which unites her Brothers of Italy with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League party and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s League

The self-described “Christian mother” segued smoothly from the fantasy king to blaming the left for the country’s “drug dealers, thieves, rapists and mafia”, adding: “This Italy ends on Sunday”.

Berlusconi, 85, was at her side.

The media mogul — who is on trial accused of bribing starlets not to testify about his allegedly erotic parties — has campaigned mainly online, wooing grandmothers and housewives with promises of stay-at-home salaries.

TikTok jokes

He has also chased the youth vote with some TikTok jokes — including one about not trying to steal their girlfriends.

The race has seen the parties try to win over voters with ideas such as sending goods from northern to southern Italy via tube and fighting climate change with cannabis.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

Former interior minister Salvini, 49, campaigned under the slogan “Credo” (I believe), earning him a rebuke from the Catholic Church.

Fearful of losing a significant chunk of his supporters to Meloni, Salvini has tried to stand out by calling for an end to sanctions against Russia and railing against Brussels.

But the end of his campaign was overshadowed by a video clip of him describing a blind League candidate on Thursday as “an eye for Italians”.

The centre-left’s Enrico Letta, head of the Democratic Party (PD), rocked up to his final rally in an electric van — reminding voters of his earlier efforts to promote ecologically friendly transport, when his electric campaign
bus ran out of battery.

His main rival for votes on the left, Giuseppe Conte, head of the populist Five Star Movement, seemed to have more staying power.

He was photographed so often standing head and shoulders above the crowd amid a throng of supporters that the media dubbed him the “travelling Madonna”.

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