Berlusconi’s reputation as one of Europe’s most remarkable politicians of recent decades remains fully deserved
by James Newell**
When he was booted out of office in 2011, Silvio Berlusconi’s political
career appeared to enter a new, and seemingly final, phase. He was
occupied less frequently in setting the political agenda than in
reacting to agendas set by others. He was already elderly and support
for his Forza Italia (FI) dwindled as the “anti-establishment” mantle
was assumed by the Five Star Movement (M5s).
Then, at the end of 2013, he was expelled from the Senate and banned
from holding public office following a conviction for tax fraud.
Resigned to the fringes, Berlusconi’s role as the driving force in
Italian politics was, until the end of 2016, assumed by the centre-left
Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi, with his constitutional
reform agenda. But since then, his fortunes appear to have revived
somewhat. So, with an election coming, is he about to make a political comeback?
On the one hand, support for his party remains well below the levels
seen in the past. Before the pre-election ban on the publication of poll
results kicked in, it stood at 16.1%, which means Berlusconi continues
to have to vie with the 44-year-old Matteo Salvini for
leadership of the centre right. Salvini has succeeded in transforming
the Northern League from a regional-autonomy party into a national
On the other hand, the rivalry between the two has become less
arduous in recent months as polling results have seen Berlusconi’s
party’s numbers slowly rise and place him, once again, in front of the
Whatever the outcome of this election, Berlusconi cannot assume the
role of prime minister because of his conviction. However, there is even
a question mark over that because the law banning him from office
applies to offences he committed before it was introduced in 2012.
Berlusconi has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights arguing
that the ruling contradicts the Italian Constitution, which provides
that “no punishment may be inflicted except by virtue of a law in force
at the time the offence was committed”. He also claims it contravenes a
similar provision in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The elder statesman
The prospects of Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition emerging with an
overall majority in this election look slim indeed. Given the electoral system,
which distributes a third of the seats according to a
first-past-the-post system, and given the showing of the M5s as a
significant “third force”, the smart money is on none of the three main
contenders emerging as an outright victor.
That said, Berlusconi has had a good campaign. He is clearly aware
that, though he may no longer be at the centre of Italian politics, he
might still act as kingmaker. Attempting to appeal to moderate voters
put off by Salvini’s stridency, he has sought to project the image of a
wise elder statesman who has turned his back on his flamboyant past. He
has made pronouncements designed to reassure Brussels and the
international financial markets.
It’s a far cry from the past. In 2002 he lost his foreign minister thanks
to his attempts to capitalise on the initial stirrings of popular
resentment about austerity, immigration and security, and to channel it
in the direction of Brussels. But the transformation should not surprise
– Berlusconi is a salesman, after all; campaigning is the activity at
which he excels.
His coalition, as an electioneering entity, works very well. Its
three main components each appeal to different varieties of more-or-less
right-wing sentiment. So if he appeals to moderates, and Salvini to
those with far-right, anti-immigrant views, his third ally, Giorgia Meloni and
her Brothers of Italy, appeals to those for whom being on the right
means a feeling of affinity with the ideals of national pride never
entirely relinquished by the heirs of Mussolini. If the specific profile
of each party potentially drives away voters, then the presence of one
of the other two serves to reassure them and keep them on side.
And the barely hidden rivalry of the three putative allies has helped
Berlusconi to keep his options open when it comes to the inter-party
negotiations that will be needed to form a government after the
election. If neither M5s, which is without allies, nor the centre left,
which is hopelessly divided, have realistic prospects of forming the
next government, then the only alternative will be a more-or-less grand
coalition. As things currently stand, the most viable option for that
appears to be one based on an arrangement between Forza Italia and the
So as he continues to compete for an overall majority, Berlusconi is
aware that in the event of failure, he might abandon his more extreme
partners for an arrangement that would still place him close to the
centre of power. Love him or loath him, then, his reputation as one of
Europe’s most remarkable politicians of recent decades remains fully
** This article was originally posted on the SPERI website
as part of an IPSG blog series on the 2018 general election. Over the
coming week more blogs will be posted which will be available to read here.