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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

For members

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

EXPLAINED: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

As more than a hundred political parties register ahead of Italy's upcoming election, here's why and a look at the ones you need to know about.

EXPLAINED: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

Italy is gearing up for an early general election on September 25th, and so far the number of different parties and alliances in the running can seem overwhelming.

While they won’t all be approved, a total of 101 political parties and movements submitted their symbols and leaders’ names to the Italian interior ministry on Sunday.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

Meanwhile, parties are busy forging electoral alliances that include up to eight or nine members.

It may look chaotic, but a large number of small parties and numerous complex alliances is standard in Italy’s electoral system.

Here’s a look at why, how it all works, and which of the parties to watch. And we’ll try to keep it brief.

How many political parties are there exactly?

It’s not yet known for sure how many of the 101 political parties and movements which submitted their symbols and leaders’ names to the interior ministry on Sunday will be approved.

Those who go forward also need to collect the 36,750 signatures necessary for their candidates to stand for seats in the lower house of parliament, and a separate 19,500 to get onto the ballot for the Senate.

The parties now have until August 22nd to officially register their candidate lists, or liste elettorali.

These lists of prospective MPs are seen as vitally important, and as such are reported on in detail by Italian media: all of these names will feature on lists at polling stations, and voters have the option to name up to three individuals they want to support on the ballot.

Each list is headed by the party leader, who would then be that party’s choice for prime minister. But some – usually smaller – parties choose to link their lists together under one leader’s name.

Ok, so which of these parties do I need to know about?

At this stage, it’s safe to say quite a few of the 101 parties and movements mentioned earlier are not serious contenders.

The number of parties you’ll actually need to know about in order to follow the election race is much smaller (although it’s still more than the two or three some of us are used to following in our home countries).

You’ve probably heard of at least some of Italy’s biggest political parties: Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, or FdI); Partito Democratico (Democratic party, PD); Lega (the League); Forza Italia; Viva Italia; and Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S).

READ ALSO: Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

As well as these, some small, lesser-lnown parties are also likely to be decisive in the outcome of the election, if not in the formation of the next government.

That includes groupings of several parties that have joined the large right- and left-wing alliances.

What are these alliances?

Electoral alliances between two, three or more parties are vital, because the way Italy’s political system works means it’s almost impossible for one single party to take enough of the vote to rule alone.

Italy essentially has a multi-party system – in contrast to the two-party system in countries like the US and UK – designed after the second world war (and Italy’s Fascist era) to prevent any one party from being in complete control.

So parties must team up and form these alliances with similar parties to fight elections. Then, they often have to join forces with yet more parties or alliances to form a government – often, these coalition partners are from a different part of the political spectrum.

Image: Demopolis

As a result, Italy has had a long series of fractious governments made up of numerous parties with vastly differing viewpoints (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, don’t tend to last very long).

Here’s a look at the three main electoral alliances in the running this time around, and the parties within them, as well as a few other contenders you may hear about in the news:

  • Centre-right

The so-called centre-right or ‘centrodestra’ alliance is led by the hard-right Brothers of Italy, the biggest party in Italy according to the latest opinion polls, along with the populist League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

These three heavyweights, predicted to take around 45 percent of the vote between them, have now been joined by a grouping of smaller, more moderate parties – a coalition within a coalition, if you will – who are running under one list.

This list is named Noi Moderati (‘we moderates’), and is made up of the following small parties: UDC, Coraggio Italia, Noi con Italia and Italia nel centro. 

Altogether, the ‘centrodestra’ alliance is essentially the same one that came close to winning the last election in 2018.

  • Centre-left

On the other side of the ring sits Italy’s second-largest party: the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is polling just behind FdI but hasn’t formed similar powerful alliances that would make it a credible challenge to a right-wing landslide.

The centre-left alliance, called the PD-IDP, is made up of four different lists, or groupings of similar small parties:

    • Democrats and Progressives (PD along with Article 1 and Socialists)
    • Più Europa (a grouping of small pro-European parties)
    • L’Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra (Greens and Italian Left, an alliance known as AVS)
    • Impegno Civico (IC leader Luigi Di Maio is heading a list including candidates from two other small parties: Centro Democratico and Psdi, the Italian Democratic Socialist Party.)

All these parties together are currently expected to take around 32-34 percent of the vote.

  • ‘Third pole’

After breaking an agreement to ally with PD, centrist party Azione formed a pact with Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva to create a third alliance, which they called “a third pole” and described as a “pragmatic alternative to the bi-populism of the right and left”.

The two are currently running together along with a smaller party, Lista Civica Nazionale.

The so-called A-IV alliance is currently polling at five percent.

  • Five Star Movement

Now led by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the populist Five Star Movement is the only major party running alone.

The party is significantly diminished since it shot to power on the protest vote in 2018. 

After several years of hemorrhaging support and recently splitting as former leader Di Maio left to form his own party, Impegno Civico (which is running as part of the centre-left coalition), M5S is expected to take around ten percent of the vote – sharply down from 32 percent in the 2018 elections.

Who else is out there?

There are currently dozens of new and unaffiliated parties out there, though very few are likely to reach the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

Some of the more notable smaller parties and movements could take a small share of the vote each – though it’s unlikely to be enough for them to obtain representation in parliament.

The better-known of these parties include single-issue parties like Italexit (Eurosceptic), which is currently polling at three percent.

There’s also the Partito Gay (campaigning for LGBTQ rights) as well as anti-establishment groups such as the Movimento Gilet Arancioni (Orange Vests Movement), while many of Italy’s most prominent politicians, such as current health minister Roberto Speranza, also lead their own small parties.

Find all the latest news on Italy’s election race here.

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