Berlusconi returns as kingmaker and boosts Forza Italia’s popularity
Politically incorrect Italian media owner still has power and influence
Silvio Berlusconi: ‘I did a lot of sport in my youth and I have an athlete’s heart, but in the last 20 years I have undergone 73 different trials’. File photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
It is Saturday afternoon at Palazzo Quirinale, once home to the pope but these days the official residence of the Italian president. In the long and narrow ante-chamber outside President Sergio Matarrella’s study, reporters and TV crews are clambering to get into position for the big moment.
Six days into the crisis prompted by the resignation of prime minister Matteo Renzi in the wake of his referendum defeat and the president is consulting with all the political parties before making a decision that will see him nominate Paolo Gentiloni, foreign minister in the Renzi government, as the next prime minister.
Then out steps the next party leader to have “consulted” with the president, media tycoon and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi. Now 80 years old, he had open heart surgery in the US this summer, he is banned from holding public office until 2019, he has featured in the “Bunga, Bunga” scandal, but here he is playing a leading part in Italy’s government crisis.
Italian politics are often strange. Sometimes, they seem more akin to the age of Lucrezia Borgia and Niccolò Machiavelli, than the workings of a modern democracy. Three party leaders, three of the major protagonists in the pre-Christmas government crisis do not even sit in the Italian parliament.
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini is an MEP, Berlusconi is banned, while ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S), is also banned because of a manslaughter conviction after a 1981 car crash in which three people died. A fourth party leader, Renzi of the Partito Democratico (PD), has never been elected to parliament.
Political power and influence go far beyond the halls of parliament and no one illustrates that better than Berlusconi. Considering his age and his recent ill-health, he is looking and sounding well. Admittedly, he is wearing just a touch of make up and he does seem to have an issue with his immaculate born-again hair.
After months below the radar, Berlusconi made a spectacular return in the referendum campaign, calling for a “No” vote. Cynics might argue that this move against Renzi, a man with whom he had previously agreed the secret “Nazarene Pact” in which he guaranteed (but subsequently withdrew) parliamentary support, was based on opinion polls claiming Renzi would lose. Berlusconi denied jumping on to the winning bandwagon, saying the Renzi reform package was undemocratic and inadequate.
In a series of interviews in the week before the vote, he unearthed the old rhetoric of 1994, the year of his sensational entry into politics, saying he felt “a sense of responsibility to my country and to Italians”.
Back on the campaign trail, all the old less-than-politically-correct charm, humour and outrageous self-narrative came back. Asked about his heart problems on Domenica Inn, a prime-time chat programme on his Canale 5 station, he replied in all seriousness: “I did a lot of sport in my youth and I have an athlete’s heart, but in the last 20 years I have undergone 73 different trials, I’ve had to spend two afternoons a week with my lawyers preparing to defend myself in 3,600 court hearings . . . My doctors tell me that my heart problems came out of all the indignation that I have bottled up inside myself and that is why I had to have that operation this summer.”
Asked about his health on the Channel 7 Di Martedi current affairs programme, he said he felt fine, that he had been doing a lot of physiotherapy and had developed some serious muscles, adding with his trademark broad smile: “Afterwards, I will let the ladies feel them.”
Berlusconi has dismissed claims that his recent political activism was based on worries about his own Finninvest empire (estimated by Forbes to be worth €6 billion). He says he is worried “not for my own companies but for all Italian companies”.
His activism may have had something to do with an apparently hostile takeover of his Mediaset TV company by French giant Vivendi, led by billionaire and corporate raider Vincent Bollore. News that Vivendi had acquired a 20 per cent stake in Mediaset emerged just days after the referendum result.
So where does Berlusconi go now? Even if he was not already banned from public office, it is unlikely that, at his age and with his recent health problems, he would consider running in the next general election. However, without him, the Italian centre right struggles to find a charismatic vote-winning leader.
Not for nothing do opinion polls suggest Forza Italia’s share of the national vote has risen to 14-15 per cent in the wake of his return to the fray.