Berlusconi's come back as philosopher king
Berlusconi is barred from standing in the next election. But he is mounting a comeback as potential king maker, and then philosopher king. Welcome to Italian politics: you can't keep the old boy down
The face which stares back at us is familiar and yet unfamiliar. Gone is the playboy look, taut suntanned skin over a strong jawline, the lips curled as if he is about to make a dirty joke or pinch Angela Merkel’s bottom.
This face is pale, lined with age, suggesting wisdom. The lips are closed, suggesting determination. The expression open, suggesting honesty. Silvio Berlusconi has a top class team of image consultants preparing his election ‘look’.
The great man is giving his thoughts to Il Giornale newspaper, under a question and answer session entitled ‘Ecco cosa farò’ (Here is what I shall do). They call him Presidente (the Prime Minister’s title is President of the House) though he has not born that title since 2011. Still, he owns the paper.
Berlusconi is barred from standing in the next elections (within 7 months) but, incredibly, at aged 80, his is the name on everyone’s lips. He has stitched up a deal with the anti-immigrant Northern League to the effect that whichever party scores more votes will provide the leader.
This is something his Forza Italia would have managed easily five years ago but The Northern League under its new leader Matteo Salvini and its increasingly popular anti-immigrant stance is now a force to be reckoned with.
Nationally the polls are close: 28.3 percent for the centre-right, 27.5 percent for the centre left, 27.1 percent for the 5-star movement of Beppe Grillo. But pollsters are noticing the centre-right vote creeping up. MPs who left when the coalition fractured after Berlusconi are crawling back.
The reason is that voters are disillusioned. The seemingly unstoppable firework that was Matteo Renzi went out with a whimper on a failed referendum on constitutional change. He is leader of the Democratic Party but no longer Prime Minister, having handed over the reins to the lacklustre Paolo Gentiloni.
People are concerned about living standards, they are concerned about immigration, they are concerned about Europe not doing its bit for Italy.
Silvio’s act is the kindly, wise leader of his people. He points out that since he was defenestrated in 2011 there have been four Prime Ministers, none of them elected, none of them much use.
On the back of this, his stance is not to be ashamed of his record (although it wasn’t much good, either). He freely reminds us of the time when Nicolas Sarkozy was making sarcastic remarks about him to Angela Merkel at a press conference. It was not him being humiliated, he says, but Italy. Silvio will demand Italy gets its way in Europe.
Silvio will reduce taxes, the first €12,000 of income being untaxed, with no property taxes on the main family home. He will sort out the immigration crisis. He will sort out Libya. In a move reminiscent of Macron, he says around half the ministries will be run my political outsiders.
Some of the questions in the interview are achingly rehearsed: ‘Do you smell the perfume of victory?’ Yes, I smell the perfume of victory, but more, I sense the suffering of my fellow Italians. Big hearted Silvio.
The problem for me, at least, is that I seem to have heard most of this before. Berlusconi was in power for a total of more than nine years between 1994 and 2011. He never seemed to do anything except sort out his legal problems.
But I cannot say this is the view of most centre-right people I come across. They are delighted, both at the return of the centre-right and at that of Silvio. The old boy’s support runs surprisingly deep.
And, you know, it could work. Perhaps with someone else as Prime Minister, and Silvio the philosopher king behind the scenes, things might get done in a way they were not done during his ascendency. Higher growth, lower taxes would suit Italy well.
Silvio Berlusconi, a serious leader for serious times. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here
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