Silvio Berlusconi: don't write off the return of the Demon King

Dec 11, 2012
Robert Fox

He may be a fool, and he may face an underage sex charge, but he still connects with Italian people

THE return of Silvio Berlusconi is rather like the Demon King popping through the trapdoor of the Italian political stage just in time for the Christmas panto season. At least that's the way it has been greeted by much of the European media.

But something serious this way comes as Berlusconi, now 76, bids for a fourth term as Italy's prime minister.

The announcement that the old cruise line crooner is planning to run again – possibly at the head of a new version of his People of Liberty party – came after the present prime minister, Mario Monti, announced his resignation.

Monti, a banker and former European commissioner, became non-elected prime minister at the head of a government of 'technicians' last year. He was asked to replace Berlusconi as Italy's fortunes and economy appeared to be going even further down the drain than usual.

He has shared in the international press the sobriquet 'super Mario' with his fellow Italian banker Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank. Both are credited in European capitals and the US with pulling Italy from the brink, and almost turning Italy into a serious country again, in the words of an official in Paris.

Monti has curbed welfare benefits and pensions and started to rein in Italy's huge public debt. He has even tried to persuade Italians to pay taxes – at least more than usual. Some of these measures will be entrenched in the budget he presents to parliament later this month, before stepping down from the premiership.

Elections are likely to be held in February – six months ahead of schedule. It is just possible that Signor Monti could turn himself into a fully fledged politician and run for office at the head of a new party. But what of Signor Berlusconi?

Since leaving office, he has hit choppy waters with his old adversaries in the legal profession. He has been charged with buying sex from an under-age teenage Moroccan – 'Ruby the Heart Stealer' - and further lampooned for his Bunga Bunga sex parties. Last October he was convicted of corruption by a Milan court – though this is now going through the serpentine appeals procedure, likely to last for years.

Currently Berlusconi's People of Liberty grouping is 15 points behind the leftist Democratic Party in opinion polls. Only hours after trading started following the announcement of his political self-resurrection, Italian bond prices were pushing up and the Milan stock market was nearly three per cent down. On the face of, therefore, he doesn't stand a chance.

The problem is that almost none of Berlusconi's critics, from Angela Merkel to commentators of the New York Times, can explain why after all the Punch and Judy knockdowns, the Demon King of the Italian pantomime keeps bouncing back.

The former editor of the Economist Bill Emmott has just made a film Girlfriend in a Coma to cap his book Good Italy, Bad Italy in which he blames Berlusconi for most of Italy's ills over the past ten years. Yet he fails to get to the secret of his populism and popularity.

One of the few to spot the truth about Berlusconi is the Financial Times commentator Wolfgang Munchau, who pays him a backhanded compliment for his recent spell in opposition. “Useless and comic as Mr Berlusconi may have been,” he writes, “his diagnosis of Italy's problems since he left has been spot-on. Italy needs a new deal in the Eurozone, he has said, adding that even a departure should not be treated as a taboo.”

Monti's economic measures may be sound, but they have not eroded Italy's debt in the short and medium-term, and the new budget will nearly double the tax burden for many Italian taxpayers.

Berlusconi's appeal is that he is saying basta! to austerity dictated from Brussels and Berlin if it means another decade of misery for his country, with nil growth, millions more youth unemployed and increasing social unrest.

Given his communication skills, and given, economically, the country plays a far more central role in Europe, the Italian protest against Eurozone austerity, articulated by Berlusconi, may have the potency that similar protests from Greece, Portugal, and even Spain, presently lack.

So don't write off Silvio Berlusconi, crowd-pleasing television populist that he is, just yet. Angela Merkel, Hermann van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, and even our own George Osborne, should pay attention.

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Quite so, Robert. Anyone who doesn't want to cut benefits and isn't weaselling out of paying their taxes is just so last year...

Oi, Robert how could we get "to the bottom of Berlusconi's secret" now when he has only just declared himself opposed to austerity, having been supporting it for a year? We say very clearly in the film that his appeal has always been based on the fact that he tells Italians that all is well, that they should carry on evading taxes and breaking the law like he does. Wolfgang Munchau is barking mad to say that Berlusconi's diagnosis is "spot on". all best! Bill Emmott

Did Monti not have the courage to tax the rich either??