Disgraced Berlusconi faces losing control of his party as support and funding slump

Disgraced former PM blamed for demise of the once-mighty Forza Italia

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It has dominated the centre-right of Italian politics for 20 years, but now the wheels appear to be falling off the Forza Italia party, in line with the declining fortunes of its founder, the billionaire media mogul and three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Membership of the party, which Mr Berlusconi created in 1993 and with which he swept to power months later, has collapsed from a high of 400,000 to just 60,000. Its accounts are in the red and at the end of last year it sacked 50 workers.

In December, instead of the usually sumptuous Forza Italia Christmas dinner, the tycoon’s political troops were treated to a forlorn outing to a non-descript trattoria on the outskirts of Rome – even if the mogul took the microphone and regaled diners with self-aggrandising jokes.

Meanwhile, Forza Italia’s poll ratings have sunk to 15 per cent and it is in danger of being overtaken by the right-wing Northern League, which has surged on an immigrant-baiting, anti-euro ticket.

The impression of chaos has been underlined by the emergence of one leading dissident, Raffaele Fitto, who has publicly attacked the mogul’s leadership.

 

Marcello Veneziani, a leading political pundit at Mr Berlusconi’s conservative newspaper Il Giornale, told The Independent that Forza Italia was in crisis, and blamed a fight for the succession. “The real problem is that the Berlusconi era is ending. That’s why the party is exploding,” he said.

But if Forza Italia’s problems are in part financial and internecine, the other menace is political: Matteo Renzi. Italy’s young, cocky, and ambitious Prime Minister appears to have run rings around Mr Berlusconi, using the mogul’s political support to pass political reforms when it suited him, before dumping him when it did not.

After the humiliation of his community service stint for tax fraud and his expulsion from parliament, the tycoon could at least take comfort from the fact that Forza Italia was still in a position to make deals with Matteo Renzi’s government over political reform.

But last week Mr Berlusconi let it been known that the “Nazarene pact” (named after the address of the party headquarters where it was thrashed out) with Mr Renzi over reforms was dead. Wheeler-dealing Mr Renzi effectively replied: “Fine, we don’t need you any more.”

By last week securing the election as head of state of Sergio Mattarella – a political enemy of Mr Berlusconi – Mr Renzi has managed to assuage left-wing rebels in his party.

He carried out this sly manoeuvre only after enlisting Mr Berlusconi’s support to push electoral reforms through the Senate. And the Prime Minister received another boost yesterday with news that six centrist senators from the small Civic Choice party were preparing to defect to his Democratic Party.

Mr Berlusconi originally felt compelled to deal with Mr Renzi in the hope of legislative guarantees to protect his business empire, badly wounded by a vicious recession. “Everything has been about saving his businesses,” said political scientist Lorenzo de Sio of Rome’s LUISS University.

But even that backroom guarantee now appears to have been ripped up: new media laws regarding broadcast frequencies will, according to La Repubblica newspaper, add €50m to the costs of Mr Berlusconi’s cash-strapped Mediaset TV empire.

Mr Berlusconi formed Forza Italia and entered politics 21 years ago to avoid prison and save his business from left-wing opponents.

But now, pundits say, things are coming full circle. Among the legislation that he introduced in the 1990s to protect himself and his companies, the bill to remove the crime of false accounting from the penal code was among the most notorious.

Mr Renzi is now reintroducing this crime. “It will be good for legality, good for encouraging foreign investment,” said Mr De Sio. “And given who got rid of it, its reintroduction will be very symbolic.”

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