Berlusconi couldn't squeeze his foot in the door again. Could he?


Rome Letter:So here we are in 2013, heading into a general election. Given that it comes right in the middle of the worst euro zone economic crisis of the postwar period, and given also that Italy itself wobbled dangerously close to the brink of economic collapse little more than a year ago, this election is certain to feature a multitude of new faces, calling for radical changes in the wake of recent near disasters. Isn’t it?

Well, not really. For a start, the single most dynamic performer of the contest thus far is “Our Silvio”, 76 years old, three times prime minister and contesting his sixth general election. Those of us old enough to have attended the Naples G7 summit of 1994, an occasion that represented Berlusconi’s “coming out” as an international leader, recall fondly the other leaders at that meeting – respectively, John Major, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, Jean Chrétien, Bill Clinton, Tornichi Murayama and Jacques Delors.

Eighteen years later, only one of the above, French president Mitterrand, is not still with us, having died in 1996. Yet, with the exception of Our Silvio, all the others have been out of public office for more than a decade now. In the land of gerontocracy, however, Berlusconi leads the dance.

Ship of state

Given that “Our Silvio” almost crashed the ship of state on some nasty-looking rocks just one year ago, it hardly makes sense to want him back at the helm, does it? I mean it would be as if the Costa Cruise company opted to hand its newest luxury liner to Capt Francesco Schettino, the man who ran the Costa Concordia on to the rocks last January. Wouldn’t it?

Well, again, not really. For a start, media tycoon Berlusconi is such a skilled and powerful campaigner that he manages to convince his followers that his downfall in November 2011 owed more to a German plot against him than to any shortcomings in its handling of the national economy by his government.

Then, too, the field for this election race comprises a number of parties due to run, if not in blinkers, then with cheek pieces given their recent questionable form. For a start, there is the Democratic Party (PD), the modern-day inheritors of the old PCI tradition.

No force in modern politics has a more splendid tradition than them when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They did it in 1994, when Berlusconi came from half a furlong behind to nip past them (then called PDS) on an unknown mount called “Forza Italia”, having its first run in public.

It is too early to say whether the PDs are about to stage a re-run of that disaster but they have been losing votes as Berlucsconi makes ground. (Current polls would give the centre-left coalition about 35 per cent, while the centre-right coalition registers about 25 per cent). Perhaps the fact that in the period between Christmas Eve and January 14th, Berlusconi accepted 54 different TV “invites” to record 28 hours and 56 minutes of prime-time TV has something to do with the comeback kid’s ratings.

By comparison, Mario Monti, the outgoing prime minister in the same period, registered 20 hours, 13 minutes, while poor old Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the PDs, managed only 12 hours and 20 minutes. In a country where Berlusconi owns three nationwide commercial channels, such figures are not surprising. In a country, too, where eight out of 10 people still get the vast majority of their “news” from TV, then the Berlusconi blitzkrieg clearly works.

Don’t hold your breath

As for the innovative and the new in this election, well . . . don’t hold your breath. Berlusconi’s two major rivals, 69-year-old Mr Monti and 61-year-old Mr Bersani, are decent, highly capable and well-intentioned men but neither is likely to win a James Dean stand-in role.

Other wonderful old dogs for the hard Italian road, competing again this time, include the UDEUR’s Clemente Mastella, the man who brought down the Prodi government in 2008; Roberto Formigoni and Ranata Polverini, respectively PDL presidents of the regions of Lombardy and Lazio, both forced out of office because of regional scandals; also running is the UDC’s Rocco Buttiglione, the man who endeared himself to the European parliament some years ago by expressing his reservations about gays and single mothers.

All is not lost, however. Certain questionable figures from the PDL, men with Mafia convictions or judicial investigations hanging over them, such as Marcello Dell’Utri, Nicola Cosentino, Marco Milanese and Alfonoso Papa, have all been dropped.

The party reluctantly ruled them all to be impresentable because of their judicial problems. All very well, but what about someone who has been tried for just about everything over the last 20 years, namely Berlusconi himself? Is he presentabile?