Silvio ‘Bunga Bunga’ Berlusconi was a populist before the word became all the rage. An almost comically divisive figure, he makes spectacular off-the-cuff remarks which thrill his supporters and leave his enemies apoplectic. He called Barack Obama ‘tanned’. He advised a teenage girl that her best bet in life was to ‘marry a rich man’, and once said it is ‘better to stare at pretty girls than be gay’. In an interview with Boris Johnson and me in The Spectator in 2003, he insisted that the fascist dictator Mussolini did not kill his opponents, merely ‘sent them on holiday to the islands’. I wonder if Boris remembers that now.
Still, unlike the current British prime minister, Silvio’s political fortunes appear to be in the ascendancy again in 2022. For he will replace the outgoing Sergio Mattarella as Italy’s president if the election, which begins on 24 January, goes his way. His resurgence would cause an almighty freak-out among the European establishment, which thought it had successfully exorcised him from the high offices of state when it forced him to resign as prime minister in a palace coup in 2011. Berlusconi, who has been a Euro MP since 2019, provokes in opponents the same visceral hatred as Donald Trump does.
Italian presidents, whose powers are largely but by no means exclusively ceremonial and who serve for seven years, are elected by the 951 deputies and senators in parliament, plus 58 regional delegates. And Il Cavaliere (the Knight) — as his supporters call him — may turn out to be the only candidate with the necessary numbers.
Certainly, Italy’s powerful left-wing press is getting molto agitato. The weekly L’Espresso has dedicated its entire current issue — whose cover proclaims in huge letters ‘Lui No’ (Not him) — to explaining, in dense page after dense page, why Berlusconi must be stopped. The popular daily Il Fatto Quotidiano has organised a petition against his candidature which has attracted 200,000 signatures, accompanied by an editorial which reels off every allegation ever levelled against him, beginning: ‘The President of the Republic must be the guarantor of the constitution. Silvio Berlusconi is the guarantor of corruption and prostitution.’
It concludes: ‘For all these reasons we ask all parliamentarians not to vote for him as President of the Republic. In fact, not to even talk about him. And, if possible, not to think about him either.’
What the papers can’t deny is that the 85-year-old Berlusconi, who has survived prostate cancer, a heart valve operation and a very bad bout of Covid, still has star quality. An irrepressible self-made media tycoon whose family owns three of Italy’s four private TV channels, he entered politics in 1994 to — as he put it — ‘save Italy from communism’. Ever since, he has been the target of a relentless barrage of criminal investigations and trials involving hundreds of court appearances. Yet he has only been convicted once — for tax fraud in 2013, for which he received a four-year prison sentence reduced to one year’s community service. (He spent much of it playing the piano in an old people’s home.) He was also banned from public office for five years.
Berlusconi is adamant that he is the victim of a witch-hunt by the Toghe Rosse (Red Cloaks), as Italy’s notoriously left-wing prosecuting judges are nicknamed. And a heck of a lot of Italians, who have plenty of experience themselves of Italy’s politicised and sclerotic justice system, agree. Otherwise they would not have made him prime minister four times. Berlusconi remains a popular figure in Italy in spite of the endless media and judicial campaigns against him.
But the judges are still hounding him on several fronts, most notably in a trial now in its seventh year, in which he is accused of bribing young women to give false testimony at a previous trial looking into what happened during his notorious ‘Bunga Bunga’ parties, and what he got up to with the then 17-year-old Karima El Mahroug, also known as Ruby the Heart Stealer. Yet at that earlier trial, at which he was acquitted in 2014 on appeal of paying for sex with Ruby when she was a minor, whatever it was those other female guests did witness it was not Berlusconi and Ruby in flagrante.
But Berlusconi has in abundance what English football managers like to call ‘bouncebackability’. To win the presidency in the first round of voting, a candidate must achieve a two-thirds majority which no one ever does. If, however, nobody wins two thirds of the vote after three rounds, a simple majority is enough. That is how Berlusconi hopes to win.
He is guaranteed the votes of the three parties in the coalition of the right, which leaves him about 50 votes short of the 500-odd he needs for victory. On Tuesday, he travelled to Rome from his home outside Milan to launch what he has called ‘Operazione Scoiattolo’ (Operation Squirrel). His aim is to root around in search of parliamentarians who might potentially vote for him. He hopes to find backers across the political spectrum prepared to vote in secret for him in that crucial fourth ballot — in particular in the smaller centrist parties, including the former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva.
The popular, albeit unelected, prime minister Mario Draghi is the main obstacle in his way. The ex-boss of the European Central Bank and former managing director of Goldman Sachs has said he wants to be president. But nearly all parliamentarians are desperate to keep him on as prime minister. That is because if Draghi did become president, it would almost certainly mean a snap general election, as the Italian parliament will fail to agree on a replacement prime minister.
And that is the last thing parties such as the alt-left Five Star, which has the most seats in parliament, and the post-communist Partito Democratico (PD), which has the third most, want. Support for Five Star has collapsed to about 15 per cent in the polls, so naturally it wants to delay elections as long as possible. And while the PD vies for pole position with the radical right Lega, which has the second most seats in parliament, and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia as the most popular party in the opinion polls (all on about 20 per cent), it has little chance of doing well enough in an election to be able to form any sort of government.
The parties of the right, on the other hand, which include Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, polling about 9 per cent, should be able to win enough seats at a snap election to form a new coalition government, since combined they are polling at nearly 50 per cent. They have much less to fear and much more to gain from a snap election. But nor are the Lega and Forza Italia keen on elections now and also want Draghi to remain as prime minister — in their case to help Berlusconi get elected president. Only Fratelli d’Italia, which got just 4 per cent of the vote at the 2018 election but whose support has rocketed since, want immediate elections. Even though they support the Berlusconi candidacy, they oppose the unelected Draghi premiership even more.
There are other less noble reasons why many deputies and senators are determined to keep Draghi as prime minister. Firstly, if those elected for the first time fail to serve the entire five-year mandate, they lose their entitlement to their scandalously high pensions. Secondly, a major parliamentary reform due to come into force at the next election — which must be held by June next year — has slashed the number of deputies and senators by a third.
Berlusconi hopes to force first-term parliamentarians, as well as others whose seats will disappear under the parliamentary reform, to vote for him by appealing to their selfish side. He’ll tell them: vote for me as president or it’s Draghi as president — and that means new elections, because neither Forza Italia (his party) nor the other two right-wing parties will support any replacement prime ministerial candidate. And if that happens, they will lose their pension and/or their seat.
His left-wing opponents, meanwhile, are trying to find a viable alternative presidential candidate with a chance of victory. That isn’t easy. The two names most mentioned are Mattarella (PD), who is 80 and adamant that he does not want to stand for a second term, and Paolo Gentiloni (PD), yet another recent prime minister, who is currently EU Economy Commissioner. However, it is virtually impossible to see him getting the necessary support from the centre, let alone the right.
Berlusconi’s favourite philosophical tract is Erasmus of Rotterdam’s In Praise of Folly (1511), the central thesis of which is that madness is a vital creative force. In the preface to an Italian edition of the work, he wrote: ‘True and genuine wisdom is thus not found in rational behaviour, which is necessarily complicit with the normal and thus by definition sterile, but in far-sighted, visionary “madness”.’
Before Christmas, the judges at his Bunga Bunga trial tried to subject him to psychiatric analysis, which many saw as a trick to get him certified insane and thus destroy his ambition of becoming president again. He refused, even though that meant that the rest of the trial will take place in his absence. As Alessandro Sallusti, the editor of the right-wing daily Libero, for years an outspoken critic of Italy’s politicised judges, and a leading supporter of Berlusconi, wrote: ‘There is no need for an assessment to establish if Berlusconi is mad. Berlusconi is mad — anyone who has achieved what he has achieved cannot be anything else.’ The craziest and (we must assume) final chapter of the Silvio story might be about to commence.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10