The former prime minister returns to the maelstrom
IDICULED the world over because of his “Bunga Bunga” escapades, ousted from government in 2011 and convicted of tax fraud in 2013, Silvio Berlusconi continues to play a pivotal role in Italian politics. For more than two months after the general election on March 4th, the former prime minister prevented the Northern League, the ally (and rival) of his own Forza Italia party, from entering coalition talks with the Five Star Movement (M5S). He insisted that the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, stick to a centre-right electoral alliance with Forza Italia. But under pressure from his own parliamentarians, who feared losing their seats in the event of fresh elections, Mr Berlusconi relented earlier this month. Ironically, just two days later on March 11th, a court in Milan made the prospect of fresh elections less scary for Forza Italia. The judges ruled that the party’s billionaire founder could once again stand for parliament. Five years ago, Mr Berlusconi was barred from holding public office because of his conviction. Now one of Forza Italia’s lawmakers could step down to force a by-election with Mr Berlusconi standing in his stead.
The judges explained their decision to lop a year off the original, six-year ban as a reward for Mr Berlusconi’s good conduct. They said they had ignored the fact that he is yet again on trial, this time accused of bribing witnesses (which he denies). The court’s ruling has been widely described in the Italian media as a “rehabilitation”. It is not. Mr Berlusconi remains a convicted criminal. But in a society where the Catholic emphasis on forgiveness plays an important role, many will regard him as absolved. Mr Berlusconi may not have the electoral appeal he once enjoyed, but most of Forza Italia’s activists are convinced that, if he can lead them into the next general election, they will do better than without him.
That alone gives him leverage in the new parliament. It will make the other parties think hard before agreeing to a snap election, for example. Forza Italia will anyway have around a sixth of the seats in both chambers. Given the febrile nature of Italy’s politics, in the right context that could be enough to ensure the survival or defeat of the next government. Mr Berlusconi’s enduring political importance—he was first elected prime minister in 1994—also owes much to two qualities no other democratic politician combines. One is immense wealth: Forbes magazine estimates his family’s fortune at $7.6bn. The other is a family media empire that includes a three-channel television network (Mediaset), a daily newspaper, a news magazine and Italy’s biggest publishing house.
Mr Berlusconi’s “soft power” is hard to quantify, but it may have played a role in the latest government talks. Even though there was nothing to stop Mr Salvini from ditching Mr Berlusconi after the election to try to broker a deal with M5S, he remained conspicuously loyal. Why? The most widely accepted rationalisation was that he feared being junior partner in a coalition with M5S. But, since Mr Salvini started talks with the leader of M5S, Luigi Di Maio, the moment he was freed by Mr Berlusconi, that explanation is less than compelling. An alternative view, put forward by Mr Di Maio, was that Mr Salvini feared his ally could use his media assets to destroy him. Mr Di Maio accused Mediaset programmes of issuing “veiled threats” to the League leader. True or not, Mr Berlusconi’s formidable media clout will continue to condition Italian public life for as long as he remains active in politics.