Desperate Berlusconi takes to the internet in bid to revive Italy's centre-right

Berlusconi's Forza Italia party has already been overtaken by the far-right, populist Northern League

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The Independent Online

Disgraced ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been around the block a few times, but with his 80th birthday approaching this year the mogul is, in desperation, resorting to the internet.

Italy’s self-declared elder statesman will attempt to navigate the perilous path through the world wide web, with its seedy distractions and various viruses, to reinvigorate the Italian centre-right, which is dying a slow death.

“To beat the [centre left Democratic party] PD and the [Five Star Movement] M5S, I knew this oldie would have to make a return,” Mr Berlusconi told a political rally in Palermo on Saturday. “How? Not only with radio and TV. I have finally decided to study the internet. I will launch a major campaign on the web.” 

With Italy’s centre-right tying itself in knots and sinking in the polls, Mr Berlusconi, who won three elections before being kicked out of office following a series of sex scandals and the 2011 sovereign debt crisis, has constantly sought new ways to revive his ailing conservative Forza Italia party.

But pundits are asking how far the billionaire will get, with Italy’s far-right parties on a roll. Poll figures released last Friday show Forza Italy, which commanded a third of the electorate at its height, falling to 10.6 per cent. 

It has already been overtaken by the far-right, populist Northern League, whose poll ratings at nearly 15 per cent, appear impervious to the racist and homophobic outbursts from its politicians.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling PD rose slightly from 34.3 per cent to 34.5 per cent and the anti-establishment M5S rose from 24.5 per cent to 24.8 per cent, in Ixe’s weekly poll for Raitre television.

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In Palermo, Berlusconi accused Mr Renzi, not without reason, of being a leader without a mandate. “The Prime Minister is abusive and illegitimate,” he said, referring to the fact that Mr Renzi is the third Italian leader in a row to be appointed by the President rather than elected, thanks to a series of hung parliaments.

But for conservatives, the real crisis comes from the splits in their own movement. A number of dissidents from Mr Berlusconi’s party have formed their own conservative New Centre Right group, which props up Mr Renzi’s government in the Senate.

And in a political litmus test, Rome’s coming mayoral elections will see a Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party enter the race, despite Mr Berlusconi’s insistence that the more moderate Guido Bertolaso should be the candidate of the right.

Mr Bertolaso angered the anti-immigrant Northern League for daring to suggest that Italy’s Romani minority is discriminated against. The League’s leader Matteo Salvini is now backing Ms Meloni.

Mr Berlusconi has dismissed Ms Meloni and her party as a “bunch of ex-fascists” because of their links to the old Alleanza Nazionale party, which grew out of Mussolini’s fascist movement.

But the billionaire had no compunction about forming governments with the Alleanza Nazionale or the Northern League, in the past, when it suited him. “Now that has changed and many people who used to vote for Berlusconi now vote for Salvini and even Meloni,” said political scientist and pundit Roberto D’Alimonte, noting the rise of anti-migrant and anti-EU sentiment. “There’s a hole in the political centre ground.”