Berlusconi returns to limelight with withering attack on Renzi

Former prime minister says Italy’s current leader is a dynamic ‘spinner of yarns’

He hasn’t gone away, you know. Former prime minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi is pictured at Sunday’s Milan football derby between AC Milan, the club he chairs, and Inter. Photograph: Marco Bertorello /AFP/Getty Images

He hasn’t gone away, you know. Former prime minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi is pictured at Sunday’s Milan football derby between AC Milan, the club he chairs, and Inter. Photograph: Marco Bertorello /AFP/Getty Images

 

Silvio Berlusconi thrust himself back into the frontline of Italian politics with an emphatic rejection of Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reforms, trying to position himself as a key power broker if Italians reject the prime minister’s plans and his government collapses.

Polls suggest Italians will reject the reforms – a mix of measures to address legislative and administrative gridlock – in a referendum in December, potentially triggering Mr Renzi’s resignation and ushering in a period of political turmoil.

The public intervention by the media tycoon and three-time former prime minister will add to Mr Renzi’s difficulty in winning the December 4th vote. The outcome is being closely watched across Europe because of the possibility that it could dent investor confidence in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

Mr Berlusconi (80) warned that Italy could suffer an “authoritarian drift” if Mr Renzi’s reforms were approved because of the way they would strengthen the executive branch of government.

“It’s a risk which is too big and we cannot afford it,” said Mr Berlusconi during a television interview in which he also delivered a withering personal attack on Mr Renzi.

“He’s a great spinner of yarns, I think the number one in the history of the Republic, he’s much better than me,” Mr Berlusconi said. “And then he is 40 years old, half of mine, so he has great energy and dynamism and can go to various places every day to tell his lies.”

Warnings about a power grab may ring hollow coming from Mr Berlusconi, who tried to consolidate his own authority, attacked the judiciary and even pushed for a presidential system of government during more than two decades in and out of office.

But the former prime minister’s intervention could damage Mr Renzi’s hopes of persuading moderate centre-right voters to back his reforms.

Outmaneouvred

Mr Renzi’s Yes camp was trailing in the polls by a small margin when the most recent surveys were published last week ahead of a two-week blackout before the referendum. Cross-party support is critical to his chances of a victory.

When Mr Renzi, who is actually 41, first came to power in 2014 Mr Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party supported the constitutional reforms, whose main feature is a reduction in the size and powers of the Senate. He dropped his backing after Mr Renzi outmanoeuvred him and pushed through his own candidate for Italian president in 2015.

But Mr Berlusconi has been among the more ambiguous, or least enthusiastic, leaders of the No campaign. Part of this is due to the fact that he was sidelined for most of the summer after undergoing open heart surgery in June, but he may also have been hedging his bets.

Mr Berlusconi remains in many ways a discredited figure in Italian politics after his dramatic resignation as prime minister in 2011 at the height of the eurozone debt crisis and amid a series of sex scandals. His party’s popularity has declined substantially, to the point where it has been running slightly behind the Northern League in polling, far from Mr Renzi’s ruling Democratic Party and its main challenger, the Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo.

Nevertheless, Forza Italia commands a large share of seats in parliament, meaning it can still be pivotal in the balance of power in Italian politics.

Mr Berlusconi is expected to use this to his advantage if Mr Renzi is defeated and resigns, leading to a series of negotiations over the formation of a new technocratic government.

Mr Berlusconi’s concern about concentration of powers stems from the reduced clout of the Senate and the electoral law in the lower chamber, which awards bonus seats to the winning party in national elections.

“We might find ourselves inside a dictatorship of Renzi and the PD or Grillo, and the Five Star if we went to vote with this,” said Mr Berlusconi, who is likely to keep pushing for changes to the electoral law even in the event of a No vote.

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016