Berlusconi touts moderate choice for PM if centre-right wins Italy vote

Mogul says Antonio Tajani a strong pick if coalition wins absolute majority on March 4th

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's 81-year-old media mogul, has sought to stamp his authority on his unruly centre-right coalition ahead of next weekend's general election, dismissing the rise of his Eurosceptic right-wing allies and touting his own moderate choice as the country's future prime minister.

In a radio interview on Thursday, Mr Berlusconi said Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, would be a strong pick to lead Italy's government if the centre-right were to win an absolute majority of seats in parliament in the March 4th vote.

Mr Berlusconi had previously suggested Mr Tajani would be a good choice for the job but his public support so close to the election shows the idea is gaining traction.

"[Tajani] would make Italian interests count in the EU. He is very well regarded," said Mr Berlusconi. "We need Italy to be stable and we need Europe to be friendly."


Increasingly optimistic

Mr Berlusconi's comments come as the centre-right – comprising his Forza Italia party and two right-wing Eurosceptic allies, the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy – have grown increasingly optimistic about their chances of winning an outright majority.

However, the coalition is split over some issues, such as Italy’s membership of the euro, and there is huge competition among the three partners to establish who will be in control after the vote.

Matteo Salvini, the anti-euro, anti-immigrant leader of the Northern League, has said he would expect to be prime minister if his party receives one more vote than Forza Italia, a prospect that is still possible.

Mr Berlusconi sought to dismiss that scenario on Thursday, possibly fearing that it could alienate his base of centre-right voters in the final stage of the race. “Matteo Salvini has a big desire to lead the coalition, but in the last polls he is four points behind us,” said Mr Berlusconi. No new polls are allowed in Italy in the 15 days before an election.

"The Northern League will get more votes than ever, and I will have the honour of being the prime minister and choosing the best team," Mr Salvini said in response to Mr Berlusconi's comments. "No one has to fear a thing, except maybe the corrupt and bureaucrats in Brussels. "

The most likely outcome of the March 4th poll remains a stalemate involving the centre-right, the ruling centre-left Democratic party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, leading to a grand coalition or a government of national unity. In that case, Mr Berlusconi has said he would be open to renewing the term of Paolo Gentiloni, the current prime minister.

Mr Berlusconi cannot attempt to be Italy’s next prime minister himself, because he is banned from public office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction.

Mr Tajani was a monarchist activist in his youth and helped Mr Berlusconi found Forza Italia in 1994. Mr Berlusconi tapped Mr Tajani as his spokesman during his first stint as prime minister in the mid-1990s.

Ran unsuccessfully

As a native of Rome, Mr Tajani ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the Italian capital in 2001. His political career truly took off in Brussels, where he was an MEP and became both transport commissioner and industry commissioner in the EU commission led by José Manuel Barroso.

As well as Mr Tajani, others floated as a possible centre-right prime minister include Gianni Letta, who is 82 and Mr Berlusconi's long-time adviser.

If the Northern League were to win, it is unclear whether Mr Berlusconi would accept Mr Salvini as prime minister, given his extreme views. More moderate members, including Roberto Maroni and Luca Zaia, respectively the governors of the Lombardy and Veneto regions in northern Italy, could be palatable to Mr Berlusconi.

A spokesman for Mr Tajani declined to comment. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018