In Depth

Silvio Berlusconi: the return of Italy’s ‘bunga bunga’ PM

Disgraced former premier looks set to lead victorious coalition in March election

As campaigning heats up for Italy’s 2018 elections, so too does speculation about whether former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could be re-elected to lead the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

Pollsters forecast a three-way race between Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, Luigi Di Maio’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and the ruling center-left Democratic Party, led by another former PM, Matteo Renzi.

Berlusconi’s return is perhaps the most intriguing prospect, with the indefatigable 81-year-old politician once again vying to be at the forefront of Italian politics.

After recovering from open-heart surgery in 2016, the “Comeback Kid” - as he is known by his supporters - is heading the Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, the lynchpin of the center-right coalition vying for power in the national ballot. The vote is expected to be held on 4 March.

‘Bunga bunga’ court case

That timing may prove problematic. Berlusconi’s flamboyant personality is eclipsed only by news of his jet-setting lifestyle and numerous court appearances.

Last month, Berlusconi was ordered to stand trial over alleged witness tampering in a 2013 case related to his notorious “bunga bunga” parties and a then-17-year-old alleged prostitute known as “Ruby the Heart Stealer”. (Berlusconi was convicted but was then cleared of all charges two years later.)

The latest allegations “will lead to unwelcome publicity for Berlusconi but may not have much impact on his prospects at the election”, Reuters says.

However, a further, separate court case is playing out that could prove fatal to his leadership bid.

Berlusconi’s lawyers also appeared before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in November, arguing against a ban that prevents the former four-time PM from holding public office until 2019 because of a tax fraud conviction.

Berlusconi is “hoping for a green light that will allow him to run for prime minister” at next year’s elections, reports the Daily Mail, but the ECHR decision isn’t expected for months.

Even if Italy’s election is delayed, it must be held by May, when the current parliament’s term expires - which means Berlusconi could find himself benched.

It would be a remarkable coup if Berlusconi were to be elected prime minister for the fifth time, but even leaving aside his legal issues, is he really a viable candidate?

The return of the Comeback Kid

Berlusconi has an unparalleled skill to talk “from the gut”, exploiting the fears and hopes of listeners and “making them feel he has the simple answers to all the difficult questions (even when his claims have little to no foundation and facts are distorted at will)”, says Al-Jazeera’s Silvia Mazzini.

But what has guaranteed his success for decades “is his political acumen in picking the right enemy at the right time”, Mazzini adds.

Berlusconi has two prime enemies in the 2018 election fight: the Five Star Movement, and Italians who are so jaded by traditional politics that they no longer want to vote.

There are signs of hope for him, however. In elections on the Italian island of Sicily in November, the rightist bloc backed by Berlusconi claimed victory - albeit a narrow one - putting it in “pole position” in the national poll.

The regional Sicilian ballot “was seen as a dry run for the nationwide election, with many of the island’s problems reflecting those of the country as a whole: high unemployment, a debt mountain and sluggish economic growth”, The Guardian says.

 The Times says that “the mogul proved that he was anything but dead and buried”, while Sergio Rizzo, of Italian newspaper La Repubblica, claims that the Berlusconi name alone is enough to secure up to 20% of the votes in the general election.

“It took the election of Donald Trump to remind people that Mr Berlusconi may have had a winning political formula after all,” says The Times. “As a billionaire media tycoon-turned-politician, [Berlusconi] shrugged off his conflicts of interest, delighted in being wildly non-PC, and realised that telling whoppers did not damage his standing with core voters.”

Berlusconi’s enduring popularity

Bill Emmott, a commentator on Italian politics and former editor-in-chief of The Economist, links Berlusconi’s popularity to his media empire.

“He still has three television channels and thus powerful communication abilities,” Emmott told Euronews. “Second, he is still very rich despite the decline of some of his businesses. Third, he is a good communicator and would say absolutely anything to stay in power.”

And when it comes to politicians, “Italians have low expectations”, adds Emmott.

Ironically, the polarising Berlusconi may actually be the most unifying figure in Italian politics. But can he pull together a ruling coalition?

“Yes, against all odds, we seem to be ready to give Berlusconi one more shot,” one former Berlusconi supporter, Andrea Morett, told The Washington Times. “It is at once unbelievable and absolutely predictable.”

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