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Italy’s comeback kid: How Silvio Berlusconi has managed to re-enter politics, despite all the scandals

Analysis: Convicted of tax fraud and renowned for controversy, the 82-year-old former prime minister is back, writes Hannah Roberts

Hannah Roberts
Rome
Monday 27 May 2019 16:08 BST
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Ex-Italian prime minister and leader of Forza Italia at a polling station on Sunday
Ex-Italian prime minister and leader of Forza Italia at a polling station on Sunday (EPA)

Just weeks ago, global news organisations were rifling through their obituary war chests as Silvio Berlusconi was rushed to hospital.

The 82-year-old former Italian premier, known for his sordid sex parties and crashing gaffes, often on the world stage, was mid-campaign for the European parliament elections when he was rushed in for bowel surgery.

Berlusconi himself feared he had “reached the end of the line”. In recent years Berlusconi has been dogged by health problems, and had heart surgery in 2016.

Time and time again the oft-disgraced politician has been given up for dead before making a triumphant return. This time he left his sickbed to return to the campaign trail – and has now been elected as an MEP.

His election marks, what he will hope, is the first step on the path back to the corridors of power, after he was forced to give up his parliamentary seat following a conviction for tax fraud in 2015. An Italian court last year lifted, for good behaviour, a ban on Berlusconi holding public office.

As the first name on his party’s list in four out of five constituencies, Berlusconi was a shoo-in for election under the proportional representation system used in European elections, says Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of governance at Luiss University in Rome. “If you are going to vote for Forza Italia, you are going to vote for Berlusconi. His voters believe in him personally. For his die-hard base he can do no wrong.”

Speaking on Monday, the man himself said that the result showed: “We are still indispensable – without Forza Italia the centre right cannot win ... In Brussels I will remain the sole levee against anti-European nationalism. I couldn’t do any more than I have done. I have given the maximum.”

Berlusconi was forced to resign as prime minister in 2011 after running the Italian economy into the ground, making way for a technocratic government.

His last few years in the country’s top job had been marred by allegations of corruption and tales of “bunga bunga” sex parties at his lavish villa outside Milan. He was accused of unlawful sex with 17-year-old nightclub dancer Ruby – “the Heart Stealer” – but was acquitted on appeal, after a troupe of starlets testified the evenings were merely “elegant dinners”.

After his ousting from politics, the former cruise ship crooner served a community service sentence in a retirement home, where he was in his element at bingo games and singalongs. But with the lifting of his exclusion from public office last year, the “Teflon don” saw a chance to return yet again to the political fray.

He declared his bid for European election in January, saying that “at the lovely age” of 82 he felt “a sense of responsibility to head for Europe, where there is a lack of deep thinking about the world”. Since then he has been working his mainstays of off-colour jokes and popular-appeal policies, including lower taxes and animal rights.

Silvio Berlusconi tells BBC reporter her handshake is so strong 'no one will want to marry her'

But much has changed since Berlusconi left office: his party haemorrhaged voters as Italy’s conservatives have defected to Matteo Salvini’s hard-right Lega Nord (Norhtern League), now the most popular party in Italy. In last year’s elections, Berlusconi’s party polled just 14 per cent, down from 37 per cent in 2008. It was too toxic to be part of the coalition between the far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star, which now govern Italy in an uneasy partnership.

Furthermore, he is now in the midst of a second trial for the corruption of witnesses in the Ruby case. The unexplained death of a vital prosecution witness, model Imane Fadil, in January sparked speculation that she had been poisoned as part of a cover-up plot, threatening to ruin Berlusconi’s comeback. Berlusconi claims he has never met her and that “her statements had always sounded like inventions and nonsense”.

His planetary ego will enjoy a brief respite. But his election as an MEP doesn’t really change much. Prime-time Berlusconi was extraordinary because he was a libertine billionaire in charge of a G8 country. But now he’s fading away 

Michael Day, author of ‘Being Berlusconi’ 

Berlusconi sees himself as an elder statesmanlike figure with experience in international relations. But in reality, and while in power, he frequently embarrassed Italy on the international stage, and horrified Eurocrats with his puerile jokes.

He suggested German politician Martin Schulz could get a role as concentration camp guard in a war film, and reportedly called Angela Merkel an “unf***able lard-arse”. But while at one time he would be every European leader’s worst nightmare, now, in an increasingly fractured Europe, Berlusconi, jaw-dropping gaffes and all, would be a welcome return. “He is the best that they can hope for,” says Orsina.

If, as seems probable, there is a crisis in the coalition after the European elections, there may be fresh elections in the autumn. Forza Italia could then return to government as part of a centre-right coalition with Salvini’s League.

Silvio Berlusconi has his acquittal in the Rubygate affair upheld

But for Michael Day, author of Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga, any comeback will be a short-lived rally on a path of terminal decline.

“His planetary ego will enjoy a brief respite. But his election as an MEP doesn’t really change much. Prime-time Berlusconi was extraordinary because he was a libertine billionaire in charge of a G8 country. But now he’s fading away. The miserable showing of Forza Italia at 8.8 per cent, a quarter of the 37 per cent it was at its prime in 2008, underlines how Salvini and the hard right are running things now.”

Even Salvini is doing everything to hinder Berlusconi’s political return, hoping to be able to form a centre-right coalition without him, says Orsina. “Berlusconi puts off a certain part of the electorate, and even as a junior partner would be cumbersome, not happy to sit on the sidelines.”

Ever the maker of his own myth, Berlusconi has often been said to harbour ambitions of becoming president of Italy. But that dream has now evaporated with his votes. His real legacy is likely to be the corrosion of political faith caused by the corruption and tawdry scandals that dogged his career and tainted Italian politics, ironically contributing to the rise of the new generation of populist forces.

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