Billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has been in and out of the hospital in recent years, and in and out of court for many more. But at 85, what he is said to really want is to be back in power.
One could argue Berlusconi never stopped wielding enormous power in Italy, even during the years he was barred from holding office due to court convictions, but now he appears to be gunning for the palace on the hill, as they call it here. Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister is angling behind the scenes to be named president when the term of incumbent Sergio Mattarella runs out next month. Though president of Italy is a largely ceremonial role, it has grown teeth over the years, real heft, with the power to appoint prime ministers, veto cabinet appointments and keep the squabbling political classes on track.
News that Berlusconi may be back in a big way has dominated the news here and has spawned more than a few outrageous memes. This was the man after all who was famous for “bunga-bunga parties,” was convicted of having sex with an underage girl and was forced to resign ultimately in 2011 as crowds hounded him with jeers of “buffoon.” He may want to try to rewrite his legacy or at least burnish it.
“Berlusconi believes he is one of the most important persons, possibly the most important historical figure in Italy in the late 20th century and early 21st century, and he believes that Italy has not recognized his importance,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor at Luiss University in Rome. “He has of course been very controversial. He has been condemned. He has been excluded from Parliament. So, for all these reasons, he is basically looking for some form of retribution.”
Italy’s center-right parties were quick to throw their weight behind his candidacy though just on Monday the firebrand far-right leader Matteo Salvini said they need to figure out first if Berlusconi’s got the numbers before votes are cast. The center-left PD party has said center-right endorsement of Berlusconi leaves them “disappointed and worried.”
There is no denying Berlusconi’s importance and prominence over decades on the political scene. Italians after all elected him for four terms. But that doesn’t mean he is the right man for the times, says editor of the weekly journal Espresso Marco Damiliano.
“Berlusconi has divided the country for ages. In January of 1994, he came onto the political scene. Twenty-eight years ago. He said he wanted to join the political arena to fight communism.” Never one to mince words, one of Berlusconi’s trademarks has been his colorful language and politically incorrect banter. And that manages to bring out similar language in others.
“If he won, I would change my citizenship. I would become a Moroccan citizen. I would become an African,” one Rome resident told Reuters. “He is not a unifying person as the president of the nation should be. He is a divisive person. He is not capable of embodying the soul and spirit of this country. Unless we want to offer an image of corruption, arrogance and incapacity.”
One contender for the presidency who has won a reputation internationally over the years for competence and probity is the current prime minister, Mario Draghi. Berlusconi resigned when the euro crisis ran amok. Draghi, as head of the European Central Bank at the time, was credited with ultimately saving the euro. What his migration to the palace would mean for Italy is as hotly debated as Berlusconi’s possible move is.
Draghi was appointed by President Mattarella to right the ship when the last government fell amidst a pandemic that hit Italy particularly hard. He has won plaudits for launching reform and securing Italy’s access to over 200 billion in European Union rescue funds and loans. There is concern that if he goes that process will be brutally and painfully interrupted. Others believe that the steady hand of Draghi would be better in the presidential palace where his term would last seven years and, as such, he could keep things steady in this country where governments often fall.
The way the electoral process works is that members of Parliament and regional representatives choose the president through multiple rounds of secret ballots. Any campaigning is done largely behind closed doors. It is not a presidential election in the traditional sense. The process can be drawn out. It is also possible that President Mattarella, who at 80 has said he wants to step down, could be convinced to stay on a few years so that Draghi can finish what he started in government and only then head for the presidential hills.
There aren’t many open bets that Berlusconi will get the job. But some Italians say they would welcome the chance to give him another chance. And he has proven to be more resilient than a cat with nine lives.
“He’s a bit old, but we’ll see what happens,” one Rome resident said. “As a politician, he’s done well. He’s also had legal problems but he’s always been acquitted. He could do well.”
Though it is not true that he has always been acquitted, relatively little of the mud thrown has stuck to Berlusconi. He has had over 100 trials and has spent hundreds of millions in legal fees but still has his hat in the ring to run the show.