The black comedy of Italian politics

Berlusconi is back, and now he's up against an anti-corruption comic

The Cavalier is back on his horse. After days of confusion and self-contradiction, on Friday Silvio Berlusconi was his rambunctious old self again, confirming that he will indeed fight Italy's coming general election. He claimed – on the basis of privately commissioned opinion polls with which he is said to be updated daily – that his stunning decision one week ago to lead his party, the People of Liberty (PdL), into the next elections has already boosted its chances.

"My return has already produced a positive effect," he told one of his own TV channels. He called it "the B effect". "If I were to lead the party," he bragged, "we could recover all the votes we obtained in 2008, the votes of all the disillusioned voters who are still out there and who have not gone over to any other party. We will appeal to them, and we are convinced they will never allow the left to win."

With a new wench on his arm – 27-year-old Francesca Pascale, a former shop assistant from Naples who gained his attention after launching a "Silvio, we miss you!" fan club – the media mogul was doing his best to convince himself and the millions who have repeatedly voted him into office that nothing had changed since the days of his glory.

But it's not only the much repaired and heavily pancaked face that has aged cruelly since he was forced to resign 18 months short of his full term. With a corruption scandal forcing the resignation of his truculent old comrade Umberto Bossi, the founder and leader of the separatist Northern League, and with the PdL riven by corruption allegations and dissent, today Mr Berlusconi can command less than 20 per cent of the Italian electorate, compared with the 30 per cent loyal to the coalition of the centre-left Democratic Party and the post-communist Left, Ecology, Liberty (SEL) party.

The somersaults Mr Berlusconi has performed in the past week give away how weak he has become. He has sniped at Mario Monti, the economist technocrat who took over as prime minister 13 months ago, ever since the latter came to power, and it was his party's decision last week to withdraw parliamentary support that prompted Mr Monti to announce his resignation. But this week, in one of the bizarre U-turns for which he is famous, Mr Berlusconi offered to support Mr Monti if he accepted the leadership of the centre-right. If he turned him down, then he, Mr Berlusconi, would be the party's candidate. Mr Monti responded with commendable restraint: "First they take away their support, then they propose me as their candidate. Thanks, but let's have a little coherence."

While few in Italy outside the circle of Berlusconi loyalists see the former PM as having a prayer of getting back into power, his re-emergence – "the Return of the Mummy" was how the French daily Libération styled last week's coup de théâtre – has undoubtedly rendered election predictions even more hazardous than usual. "These are the most unpredictable elections in years," said John Foot, professor of Italian history at University College London. "It's not worth trying to predict anything. You will just be proved wrong straight away."

Another new factor is bedevilling efforts to read the Italian runes: an acerbic, grey-bearded comedian called Beppe Grillo. An accountant by training, Mr Grillo, 64, became a comedian by accident and was one of the most bankable stand-ups on Italian television in the 1980s. But his political intelligence and knowledge of the world of money frequently erupted through the gags, and in a country where satire is a risky vocation he found himself banned from the airwaves after teasing the Socialist Party under its then leader Bettino Craxi about corruption.

Turning his back on TV, he built a huge new audience through live shows in which anti-establishment political content steadily elbowed aside the comedy. His obsessions were legion: polluting rubbish incinerators, freedom of speech, non-renewable terms for MPs, expansion of public transport and green areas of cities. He gained a huge following after publishing the names of all MPs convicted of corruption in full-page adverts in the national press, and demanding that they be barred from parliament.

Gradually be became a political figure in his own right, lecturing the European Parliament in 2007 on the problem of corruption in Italian politics. Finally, in 2009, his populist political bandwagon mutated into a party, called Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), which to the astonishment of many is now the second most popular in the country, after the centre-left Democrats. In the two real tests it has faced since 2010 it has gained up to 20 per cent of the vote.

Mr Grillo's success is a measure of the volatility of Italian politics and of popular disillusionment with conventional politicians. Yet there is no shortage of commentators warning that he is a false prophet, representing exactly the sort of charismatic megalomania for which Italy seems to have an incurable weakness.

There is no love lost between Italy's two political comedians, Mr Grillo and Mr Berlusconi. One might think that the former's nickname for the former prime minister, lo psiconano, "the psychotic dwarf", would be enough in itself to prevent any kind of alliance between them.

Yet, as James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome, pointed out on his blog: "Both of them at the moment would win enough seats to condition, though not control, the government. And as anti-European populists, it would be interesting to see Berlusconi and Grillo in bed together – it might even happen!"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy