Berlusconi: Facing a new crisis, Italians turn to an old warhorse

Italian former Prime Minister and leader of center-right party Forza Italia (Go Italy), Silvio Berlusconi arrives to attend the TV show "Quinta Colonna", a programme of Italian channel Rete 4, on January 18, 2018 in Rome. / AFP PHOTO / Andreas SOLARO        (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Silvio Berlusconi is back ... (sort of)
02:56 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

As political resurrections go, that of Silvio Berlusconi, who once described himself as the “Jesus Christ of politics,” has been close to miraculous.

As his 80th birthday approached, the Italian multi-billionaire and former prime minister was recovering from a major heart operation and facing seven years in jail for sex with an underage prostitute at his lavish “bunga-bunga” sex parties – a charge that he denied and that was ultimately overturned.

Now, on the eve of the Italian elections on Sunday, the 81-year-old has emerged as a grandfatherly elder statesman, the kingmaker of a right-wing alliance and a bulwark against populism, even if a 2012 conviction for tax fraud means he can’t hold public office himself.

According to the final poll of voter intentions, the center-right alliance he brokered looks set to take the largest share of the vote at 36.8%.

The coalition includes Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the xenophobic far-right Northern League, and the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy.

In Sicily in southern Italy, Forza Italia polled 40% in regional elections last year.

“A lot of people see him (Berlusconi) as the devil they know,” Peter Ceretti, Italy analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNN.

“As long as he stays healthy and can keep doing what he is doing, he will continue to outperform the others.”

“He goes away in 2011, his image completely tarnished. He comes back in 2018 as a reassuring grandfather and animal lover. Some Italians will believe anything,” Marco Travaglio, journalist and Berlusconi nemesis said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Monday.

Pardoning the missteps

Much of Berlusconi’s appeal lies in Italians’ desire for stability. Berlusconi – nicknamed “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) – has been prime minister four times for a total of nine years, longer than anyone since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Even before he took office for the first time in 1994, accusations of Mafia involvement, corruption and bribery already circled round the former cruise-ship entertainer. Using a loan from a bank his father worked for, Berlusconi built a property fortune developing up-market housing estates outside Milan before buying the soccer team AC Milan (which he recently sold) and moving into television, where he now owns Italy’s largest private broadcaster as well as its largest publishing house.

He has been tried 22 times on charges ranging from tax evasion and bribery to corruption and association with the Cosa Nostra.

Berlusconi pictured with girlfriend Francesca Pascale (L) in 2013.

His penchant for much younger women is overlooked by his often traditionally Catholic support base. Berlusconi’s current partner, Francesca Pascale, is nearly 50 years younger than him.

None of this has damaged the father of five permanently because all but one of his convictions, including that of paying for sex with “bunga-bunga” participant Karima el Mahroug, who was 17 at the time of the alleged offense, were either thrown out of court or overturned on appeal.

Indeed, despite an estimated 2,500 court appearances, only one case against Berlusconi has stuck – a 2012 conviction for tax evasion in a deal involving television rights.

Related: Why Italy’s unpredictable election is testing nerves in Europe

Back on the stage

Berlusconi addresses a crowd in Milan on Sunday.

On Sunday, Berlusconi made his first major public appearance in the campaign, speaking for two hours and 20 minutes to more than 800 supporters gathered in a theater in his hometown of Milan.

Dressed all in black – his once balding head now covered in hair, his facial movements stilted from what many believe to be a face lift and wearing thick make-up – he looked more like the Godfather than the Messiah.

The program he has presented for government includes a 23% flat tax for individuals as well as companies, a promise to deport more than 600,000 undocumented migrants, and a 1,000 euro minimum pension. He is also proposing new laws to protect victims of gender-based violence, a direct appeal to women who form a large part of Italy’s army of undecided voters.

If that wasn’t enough, Berlusconi has thrown in free veterinarian bills and an end to tax on pet food.

Sunday evening, relaxed and avuncular, Berlusconi gave an hour-long interview on Rete 4, one of the television stations he owns, ending with a direct face-to-camera political broadcast.

Listing his own achievements, he gave himself credit for ending the Cold War in 2002 because his “talent for friendship” drew George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin together. Most historians believe the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

No one in Italy expects Berlusconi’s center-right bloc to be able to fulfill his electoral promises.

The Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 has estimated the domestic program alone would cost as much as 72 billion euros, a bill Italy’s already indebted treasury would struggle to pay.

“Nothing is going to be decided until after the vote,” said the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Ceretti.

The great survivor

If the center-right coalition is victorious, Berlusconi’s preferred candidate for prime minister is likely to be Forza Italia politician Antonio Tajani, currently President of the European Parliament. In January, Berlusconi received a warm welcome from other EU politicians in Brussels including Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission.

Berlusconi has said if the center-right moves into government he would introduce direct elections for the presidency.

He can’t be prime minister this time because of the outstanding conviction against him. Although he was given a four-year prison sentence in that case, he escaped with a year of community service in an old people’s home because in Italy the over-70s don’t usually go to jail.

He has challenged the 2012 government decree barring people convicted of certain offenses from holding office, including tax evasion, at the European Court of Human Rights. The case is currently being heard, but a conclusion is unlikely to be reached until after the election.

But if the center-right wins on March 4, the constitutional changes are successful, and if the court finds in his favor, the path would be paved for the great survivor of Italian politics to become president, a role traditionally filled in Italy by older men at the end of their careers.