Berlusconi's improbable return to politics: Why Italy is giving him another look

The bombastic billionaire's reentry into the political arena – despite his history of corruption charges and tawdry parties – says much about the current state of Italian politics, and where the public's mores lie.

Antonio Calanni/AP
Italian former premier Silvio Berlusconi smiles during the Italian State RAI TV program "Che Tempo che Fa", in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017.

Just a few years ago, it seemed safe to assume that Silvio Berlusconi's political career was over.

The billionaire businessman was forced to resign as Italy's prime minister in 2011 over his management of the country's debt crisis and revelations of risqué parties involving actresses and models. Two years after that, he was banned from holding public office as a result of a tax fraud conviction. Meanwhile, Italian politics moved on under a center-left government and a rising, upstart Five Star populist movement.

But after forging a center-right coalition that swept to victory in regional elections in Sicily last month, today Mr. Berlusconi is back at the forefront of Italian politics – and even has a chance of becoming Italy’s leader again.

And while that speaks in part to the loyalty of the outspoken tycoon's supporters, it also highlights the mood of the Italian public, both in terms of their dissatisfaction with the political options in their country, and how Italy's mores differ from the rest of Europe – particularly about Berlusconi's salacious reputation.

Potential king, or at least kingmaker

The Sicilian vote was seen as a litmus test of how the country might swing in a national election due to be held in the spring. The coalition consisting of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the anti-immigration Northern League, and a third right-wing party, Brothers of Italy, won 40 percent of the vote on the island.

The alliance now has its sights set firmly on the general election – and Berlusconi’s on the premier’s office. And his ban from politics is not deterring him.

He is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to overturn the ruling, hiring a team of crack British lawyers to argue his case. At a hearing last month, Edward Fitzgerald, a high-profile London lawyer, argued that Berlusconi was the victim of an injustice because the law that banned him was applied retroactively on offenses that had occurred more than a decade earlier.

The Strasbourg court is expected to take months to hand down a judgment, meaning that its ruling, even if favorable to Berlusconi, could come after the election.

But whatever happens, he will pull political strings behind the scenes, acting as a powerful kingmaker if, as seems likely, the right fails to win an outright majority and has to do a deal with a rival party.

'He’s not Weinstein'

And while Berlusconi has launched his political comeback tainted by a history of “bunga bunga” sex parties that predated by several years the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Italians don’t quite draw parallels between Berlusconi's behavior and that of Mr. Weinstein.

Unlike the Hollywood producer, Berlusconi was never accused of sexual assault, let alone rape.

When Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, then a teenage beauty queen, was invited to a sex party in 2010, she was so shocked by what she saw that she asked to leave. Her request was granted and she was driven home. But when she encountered Weinstein in New York in his office in Manhattan five years later, she alleges that he groped her.

“Berlusconi can be vulgar,” says John Hooper, a veteran observer of Italy and the author of The Italians, a critically acclaimed study of the country’s society and politics, “but he’s not Weinstein. He’s never been accused of forcing himself on women.”

Berlusconi’s abiding popularity reflects the broader mores of Italian society, Mr. Hooper adds. “I think it tells us that attitudes in Italy are many years behind those in other countries in Europe and the US. Berlusconi has done things that in many countries would be enough to disqualify a person from political life forever.”

Frustration with politics

Berlusconi’s enduring appeal to some Italians also reflects the paucity of other options as the country prepares to vote.

Italy’s left is in utter disarray, ripped apart by internal feuding, with some factions in open revolt against its leader, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. He was forced to resign last year after calling – and losing – a referendum on constitutional reform. Many Italians feel that he had his chance and blew it.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which promised so much when it first burst onto the political scene a few years ago, has lost some credibility as a result of its poor governance of Rome, where its candidate was elected mayor last year. And its candidate for prime minister, Luigi di Maio, is not only very young – he has no experience of government at any level.

“For all his faults, Berlusconi is someone that people know. Five Star’s leader is just 31 and as Berlusconi pointed out recently, his only gainful employment was as a steward at Napoli football games,” says Hooper.

Berlusconi and his supporters fervently hope that the Strasbourg court will overturn his ban on running for office before the elections.

But he insists that whatever happens, he is back in the game and will play a key role in the right’s bid to return to power.

“I hope the court quickly takes up my appeal,” Berlusconi told La Repubblica newspaper this month. “But my role in the next campaign is clear: independent of my ability to run, I will be campaigning for the center-right to lead the country.”

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