Silvio Berlusconi: what to expect from the comeback king in Italy’s election

Is Silvio Berlusconi set for a political comeback after Sunday's election? Politics professor James Newell takes a look at the role the Forza Italia leader has carved out for himself after being written off by many as irrelevant.

Silvio Berlusconi: what to expect from the comeback king in Italy's election
Silvio Berlusconi gestures at a campaign event alongside his party's Lombardy candidate. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

When he was booted out of office in 2011, Silvio Berlusconi’s political career appeared to enter a new, and seemingly final, phase. He was occupied less frequently in setting the political agenda than in reacting to agendas set by others.

He was already elderly and support for his Forza Italia (FI) dwindled as the “anti-establishment” mantle was assumed by the Five Star Movement (M5s). Then, at the end of 2013, he was expelled from the Senate and banned from holding public office following a conviction for tax fraud.

Resigned to the fringes, Berlusconi’s role as the driving force in Italian politics was, until the end of 2016, assumed by the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi, with his constitutional reform agenda. But since then, his fortunes appear to have revived somewhat. So, with an election coming, is he about to make a political comeback?

Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: AFP

On the one hand, support for his party remains well below the levels seen in the past. Before the pre-election ban on the publication of poll results kicked in, it stood at 16.1%, which means Berlusconi continues to have to vie with the 44-year-old Matteo Salvini for leadership of the centre right. Salvini has succeeded in transforming the Northern League from a regional-autonomy party into a national populist force.

On the other hand, the rivalry between the two has become less arduous in recent months as polling results have seen Berlusconi’s party’s numbers slowly rise and place him, once again, in front of the League.

Whatever the outcome of this election, Berlusconi cannot assume the role of prime minister because of his conviction. However, there is even a question mark over that because the law banning him from office applies to offences he committed before it was introduced in 2012.

Berlusconi has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the ruling contradicts the Italian Constitution, which provides that “no punishment may be inflicted except by virtue of a law in force at the time the offence was committed”. He also claims it contravenes a similar provision in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The elder statesman

The prospects of Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition emerging with an overall majority in this election look slim indeed. Given the electoral system, which distributes a third of the seats according to a first-past-the-post system, and given the showing of the M5s as a significant “third force”, the smart money is on none of the three main contenders emerging as an outright victor.

That said, Berlusconi has had a good campaign. He is clearly aware that, though he may no longer be at the centre of Italian politics, he might still act as kingmaker. Attempting to appeal to moderate voters put off by Salvini’s stridency, he has sought to project the image of a wise elder statesman who has turned his back on his flamboyant past. He has made pronouncements designed to reassure Brussels and the international financial markets.

It’s a far cry from the past. In 2002 he lost his foreign minister thanks to his attempts to capitalise on the initial stirrings of popular resentment about austerity, immigration and security, and to channel it in the direction of Brussels. But the transformation should not surprise – Berlusconi is a salesman, after all; campaigning is the activity at which he excels.

Berlusconi with his coalition partners. Photo: Livio Anticoli/AFP

His coalition, as an electioneering entity, works very well. Its three main components each appeal to different varieties of more-or-less right-wing sentiment. So if he appeals to moderates, and Salvini to those with far-right, anti-immigrant views, his third ally, Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy, appeals to those for whom being on the right means a feeling of affinity with the ideals of national pride never entirely relinquished by the heirs of Mussolini. If the specific profile of each party potentially drives away voters, then the presence of one of the other two serves to reassure them and keep them on side.

And the barely hidden rivalry of the three putative allies has helped Berlusconi to keep his options open when it comes to the inter-party negotiations that will be needed to form a government after the election. If neither M5s, which is without allies, nor the centre left, which is hopelessly divided, have realistic prospects of forming the next government, then the only alternative will be a more-or-less grand coalition. As things currently stand, the most viable option for that appears to be one based on an arrangement between Forza Italia and the Democratic Party.

The ConversationSo as he continues to compete for an overall majority, Berlusconi is aware that in the event of failure, he might abandon his more extreme partners for an arrangement that would still place him close to the centre of power. Love him or loath him, then, his reputation as one of Europe’s most remarkable politicians of recent decades remains fully deserved.

James Newell, Professor of Politics, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here’s the first glimpse of the Italian Silvio Berlusconi film

The trailer is finally here for Paolo Sorrentino's biopic of Silvio Berlusconi, a man who the director called "an archetype of Italianness".

Here's the first glimpse of the Italian Silvio Berlusconi film
A scene from Paolo Sorrentino's film about Silvio Berlusconi, Loro. Image: Universal Pictures International Italy/YouTube

Filmed in Rome and Tuscany last summer, the hotly anticipated Italian-language feature – titled Loro or “Them” – does not yet have an official release date, but is expected to premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Sorrentino, best known internationally for his Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) and the TV series The Young Pope, has said he wanted to profile Italy's most infamous living politician because “he is an archetype of Italianness and through him, you can describe Italians”.

To judge by the trailer released on Monday, the film will focus at least as much on Berlusconi's personal life as his long career in media and politics. 

“I was interested in the man that’s behind the politics, but I am not so interested in the political stuff,” Sorrentino told the BBC last year, explaining that he would also tell the story of those around the businessman-turned-politician who tried to use his position to “change the course of their own life”. 

The teaser features multiple women, many of them scantily clad, but only a passing glimpse of Berlusconi, played by Toni Servillo. 

Paolo Sorrentino (L) and Toni Servillo with the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for La Grande Bellezza. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP

The Neapolitan actor – who starred in La Grande Bellezza as well as Il Divo, Sorrentino's musical biopic of another former premier, Giulio Andreotti – has already impressed the Italian media with what La Repubblica called his “metamorphosis”. Photos from the set showed Servillo sporting Berlusconi's trademark tan and distinctive hairline; now he's winning praise for his spot-on impression of the four-time prime minister's voice.

We've only heard him say one line so far. Loro's trailer opens with a man's voice asking, “What did you expect: to be the richest man in the country, become prime minister and be madly loved by everyone too?” 

As Berlusconi, Servillo replies: “Yes, that's exactly what I expected.”

It's not clear if the real Berlusconi has seen the film. While he originally offered to allow Sorrentino to shoot inside his private villas, by October last year he said he had heard unwelcome rumours that the film might be a “political aggression towards me”.   

According to La Repubblica, Sorrentino did get the chance to meet Berlusconi's second ex-wife, Veronica Lario, with whom the politician is engaged in a long-running legal battle over alimony. Played by Elena Sofia Ricci, Lario also features in the trailer, looking mournful on a trampoline.

Berlusconi's pet poodle Dudù also makes an appearance. 

The teaser comes just a week after Berlusconi's greatest political defeat to date: his Forza Italia party won just 14 percent of the vote in Italy's general election, making it second within the centre-right bloc to the populist League. Should the group manage to form a government, the League – not Berlusconi – now gets to decide who will be prime minister.

Little has been seen or heard from Berlusconi publicly since the results came in. Many expect it to be the last time that the 81-year-old leads his party into an election, despite his supposed political immortality.

“The world has an idea of Berlusconi [as] a very simple person,” Sorrentino told the BBC. “But… I understood that he is more and more complicated than this. I would love to try to describe this complex character.”