Don’t write the obituary for Silvio Berlusconi’s career just yet

He got into politics to defend his interests, and now he has a lot of defending to do

Italian center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a confidence vote at the Senate in Rome last week. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters.

Italian center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a confidence vote at the Senate in Rome last week. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters.

Fri, Oct 11, 2013, 00:17

“A whole political era has come to an end; Wednesday [in parliament] marked the end of 20 years, in a political context and with a fierce political confrontation . . .”

The speaker is Italian prime minister Enrico Letta. Reflecting last Sunday on a dramatic week in politics that saw
him survive an attempt by
centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi to bring down his centre-right, centre-left coalition government, Mr Letta touched on the $64 million dollar question. Namely,
is this the political end of 77-year-old Mr Berlusconi?

Many Italian commentators like to suggest that we could be looking at the end of the ventennio, the 20-year period. The point about the word ventennio is that it involves a specific reference to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, since his period in power is almost always referred to as the ventennio fascista. The implication is that with 20 years of government under your belt (Mussolini actually had more, while Berlusconi
has had less, but that would
be nitpicking), your time
has come.

In Mr Berlusconi’s case, all logic would suggest that we have reached the end of the political road and that, as Democratic Party secretary Guglielmo Epifani, put it the other day, “the future does
not belong to Berlusconi”. Faced with an unprecedented internal party revolt, about to be expelled from parliament, scheduled to do a year’s as yet undefined “community service” and with at least three potentially damaging court t cases still in front of him, Mr Berlusconi’s plate would certainly seem very full.


Charges
One might be tempted to conclude that, at this point,
he will simply step aside and concentrate on defending himself from charges that include involvement in
underage prostitution and having bribed a senator in order to bring down the centre-left government of Romano Prodi in 2008.

While it is true that Mr Berlusconi does indeed
spend a lot (some would say most) of his time these days consulting his defence lawyers, that is not to say that he is about to withdraw from the political scene.

The point about Mr Berlusconi is that his involvement in politics has always been about defending himself and his business interests. Rather than retire from politics to defend himself, he will stay in politics as long as he can to defend himself. In this case, as President Lyndon Johnson would have put it, being inside the political tent is much more valuable than being outside it.

Only this week, in the most unexpected of contexts, we had a reminder of the Berlusconi world vision.

Frenchman Marcel Desailly, a footballer who joined Mr. Berlusconi’s AC Milan team in 1993 on the eve of the media tycoon’s explosive entrance into politics, told French football monthly So Foot of the climate of the time. Talking to his players, Mr Berlusconi said that he was about to enter politics “in order to save my own interests and to guarantee a future for our children”.


Reservations
Those who conclude that last week’s reverse signals the end could be right , but perhaps
not just yet.

However, they are wrong if they conclude that he was a total loser last week. For one thing, important advisers such as his daughter, Marina (the president of the family holding company, Fininvest), not to mention old business buddies such as Mediolanum Bank president Ennio Doris, publicly expressed their reservations about the impact of a Letta government collapse.

Privately, their advice may have been more forceful, but both of them will have pointed out to Mr Berlusconi that his own companies (TV, publishing, banking etc) would have
lost heavily last week if a government collapse had sparked a market run on
Italy, with a subsequent
stock exchange crash.

Likewise, even if, as seems certain, Mr Berlusconi is expelled from parliament
(in the process losing his priceless parliamentary immunity), he is almost certain to keep on politicking, from outside the House.

At a meeting with his rebellious dauphin – Angelino Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi’s PDL party – earlier this week, he reportedly offered to campaign for
him during an early general election next spring. Given his ability to speak to the Italian “belly” (thanks partly to his media power) he would happily seize on an election campaign to once again argue that electoral consensus wipes out all his trespasses.

Mr Alfano, by the way,
has been very careful not to formally break with the PDL. For one thing, neither he nor any of the other PDL rebels currently have the resources to as much as hire an office for a new party. After all, the PDL (and by extension its parliamentarians) has long been bankrolled by Mr Berlusconi. A last hurrah for the Great Communicator is not out of the question.

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