Rome Letter: Berlusconi still calling shots on Italy’s political scene

Media tycoon moves to split right-wing vote in Rome mayoral elections to aid Renzi

Enduring  irony: Silvio Berlusconi has managed to turn the forthcoming mayoral contest in Rome on its head, causing problems for his centre-right “rivals” and potentially doing favours to his centre-left “allies”. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Enduring irony: Silvio Berlusconi has managed to turn the forthcoming mayoral contest in Rome on its head, causing problems for his centre-right “rivals” and potentially doing favours to his centre-left “allies”. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

 

So, you all thought that media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was just toast at this stage, not so much yesterday’s man as the day before yesterday’s man? Wrong.

Just last week we had dramatic evidence of the extent to which, 79 years old or not, the old fox (Italians like to say shark) is still alive, well and calling shots on the national political scene. With one move, Berlusconi managed to turn the forthcoming mayoral contest for Rome on its head, causing problems for his rivals and potentially doing favours to his allies.

The irony is that his “rivals” all come from his own centre-right side of the fence, whilst his main “ally” is centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi. In his cynical way, Berlusconi would appear to have calculated that it suits him well to score an own goal, especially if that own goal ends up becoming a massive favour to Renzi, in the process doing no harm to his €7 billion Fininvest empire.

What has the tycoon done to prompt such speculation? Very simply, less than a month ahead of the Rome mayoral vote, he has split the right-wing vote. In the two-round election, this move does not guarantee centre-left success but it makes it almost certain that one of the two run-off candidates will be the centre-left candidate, Roberto Giachetti, while the other will likely be Virginia Raggi of the Five Star protest movement.

The significance of all this is that Italy is about to head into a series of local elections in June, not only in Rome but other cities including Milan and Naples. Local elections follow their own parochial logic, but at the same time the mayoral election in the capital provides a clear litmus test in terms of national standings. For Renzi’s candidate not to make it to the run-off vote would represent an embarrassing electoral reverse.

Political forces

Democratic PartyForza ItaliaNorthern League

It is the vote for this third centre-right area which Berlusconi has split by insisting on his own middle-of-the-road candidate, Alfio Marchini, rather than supporting the candidacy of extreme right exponent Giorgia Meloni. Having originally chosen to run his own candidate, former Civil Protection leader Guido Bertolaso, Berlusconi last week withdrew him, replacing him with Marchini.

The maths is simple enough. Opinion polls put the Five Star movement on 27-28 per cent, the Democratic Party on 26-27 per cent and the centre-right with two candidates each on 18-19 per cent. Logic would suggest that the right form a united electoral platform to ensure victory. After all, the 20-year long success of three-times prime minister Berlusconi was based on precisely that – a coalition that involved Forza Italia, the post-Fascist National Alliance and the Northern League.

Giorgia Meloni, candidate for the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia, has no doubt why Berlusconi has chosen to split the right, telling daily Il Fatto Quotidiano: “Berlusconi’s choice confirms . . . that his only objective in this was to give a dig-out to Renzi’s candidate, Roberto Giachetti, who is struggling.”

Mediaset earnings

Matteo Salvini

It is worth recalling that the first significant move made by Renzi, subsequent to his being appointed Democratic Party party leader in December 2013, was to strike up a so-called “Patto del Nazareno” – Nazareno Pact – with Berlusconi. Over the last year, the special relationship between Berlusconi and Renzi has seen former Berlusconi parliamentarians frequently step in to ensure a government majority when that has been threatened by dissident, leftist elements in Renzi’s own party.

There are other considerations. For example, Berlusconi’s TV stations offer more air time to Renzi than the tycoon gave to himself when he was last in power. On top of that, there is the fact that the Berlusconi Mediaset TV channels in 2015 earned €1.25 million from “institutional” (state) advertising. By comparison other private channels such as Sky and La 7 picked up just €275,000 between them. One might dare suggest that this is not so much a “conflict” of interests as a “convergence” of interests.

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