Berlusconi organizes his return – POLITICO

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ROME — As a billionaire real estate mogul, media mogul and three-time Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi’s career already spans decades.

In recent years, however, his profile has dwindled considerably. Because of the illness, he often appeared at festive events via video link and was banned from holding public office in Italy for four years after a conviction for tax evasion.

Yet, now 85, when most people his age would slow down, the former Italian prime minister has decided to stand for election. “That way everyone would be happy,” he told Rai radio with his inimitable assurance.

Barring a miracle, the September 25 election should produce a triumphant right-wing coalition, with Berlusconi as kingmaker, buying him a position of influence for the next five years.

The return is the result of his sense of “duty”, he told POLITICO, in written responses to questions. Italy needs the values ​​that only his party represents to revive the economy, he said. “My parents taught me that when I feel a strong sense of duty within me to do something, I have to find the courage to do it.”

Returning Child

Although he dominated Italian politics and media for two decades, not so long ago it seemed that Berlusconi’s political career was behind him.

His image was tarnished by the so-called bunga bunga scandal, in which witnesses described orgies at his lavish villa outside Milan. In 2011, the mounting national debt crisis and fears of an Italian default forced him to cede power to technocrat Mario Monti. He faced numerous lawsuits, eventually being expelled from the Senate after a tax evasion conviction in 2013.

But the unexpected rise of nationalist populism over the past decade has provided Berlusconi with an opportunity to carve out a responsible and moderate pro-EU role. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, although he rarely attended votes. Last year, his rehabilitation seemed complete when he joined the grand coalition led by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, a pillar of European institutions.

Then last month, apparently sensing a shift in the political winds, he joined other coalition partners in rallying support for Draghi’s government, forcing a snap election that the right is on track for. to win. His three government ministers resigned from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, declaring it “irresponsible” and putting partisan interests before the country.

Berlusconi denies any blame for the collapse of the administration, saying: “We would have preferred the Draghi government to continue until the natural end of the legislature with elections in 2023… This was not possible due to the behavior irresponsible for 5 stars and ambiguous maneuvers. Democrats. Therefore, “there was no alternative but to return the vote to the people,” he said.

Support for Berlusconi, the junior partner in a right-wing alliance with Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Italian Brothers and Matteo Salvini’s Anti-Immigration League, is far below its glory days of 2008, when its party won 37% of the vote. It’s currently polling at around 8 percent. But together, the right-wing alliance parties are expected to garner around 45% of the vote, which should be enough for a majority in parliament.

Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

However, it is not just Italian voters that the right must win, but international bond traders, rating agencies, governments and European institutions, worried that the most right-wing government in the history of the post-war period in Italy could pose a risk to democracy and Italy’s alliances in the EU and NATO.

If international institutions are not convinced that heavily indebted Italy will be in good hands, the cost of borrowing will skyrocket and the government’s room for maneuver will be severely limited.

U-turn on Putin

One of the reasons for these concerns has been the warm relations of some members of the alliance with the far right. parties in other countries like Vox in Spain, and with authoritarians like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The League signed a cooperation agreement in 2017 with United Russia, the party that backs Putin, and Salvini attempted a peace mission funded by the Russian embassy earlier this year. Berlusconi has a long friendship with Putin, even vacationing at his dacha and was forced to deny media reports earlier this month that he spoke to Russia’s ambassador in Rome and sympathized with Russia’s position. .

So far, his criticism of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has remained silent. But in his comments to POLITICO, Berlusconi unambiguously condemned his former friend: “Today Russia’s attack on Ukraine has violated international law and brought a painful war to the heart of Europe.”

Looking back on his time as prime minister, Berlusconi said he had worked to improve relations between Russia and the West. The 2002 NATO-Russia agreement, in Rome, “could have ushered in an era in which Russia would become a trusted partner and interlocutor”. He said he was “deeply disappointed” with Putin.

Berlusconi denied that any of the parties in the right-wing alliance are extremist, saying the coalition is centre-right, and said it ‘has nothing to do with extremist movements in other countries’ .

“[We are] pro-Europe, pro-West, pro-NATO, with liberal democracy as the only point of reference,” Berlusconi said. He added that he “would not participate in any government” if he was not absolutely sure of his “democratic correctness, his sense of responsibility and his loyalty to Europe and the West”.

According to Berlusconi, it is the centre-left whose loyalty is questionable, as their coalition includes a far-left party that voted against Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

Despite his reduced profile, Berlusconi still has the ability to cause an outcry. Last week, when discussing a plan to reform the presidential system, he hinted that President Sergio Mattarella would, if passed, step down. The comment was seen as an attack on Mattarella, Italy’s guarantor of democratic checks and balances and the country’s most popular politician. Berlusconi’s opponents accused the Right of plotting to dismantle Italy’s democratic system and said Berlusconi wanted the role for himself. Berlusconi has denied any desire to become president.

Berlusconi could instead aspire to Italy’s second-highest institutional role, that of president of the Senate, but he would be a highly controversial choice, and his allies have so far not endorsed him. Insiders said the election campaign revitalized him. Its Facebook video bulletin campaign plays on 1990s nostalgia and time-tested talk about tax cuts and increased pensions.

Berlusconi claimed he had worked to improve relations between Russia and the West | Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images

Even without a formal institutional role, as long as he gets the votes he expects, Berlusconi will wield considerable power in the next government.

“If he gets 7-8%, as expected, it could be the difference between a clean victory for the right and a messy outcome,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey. “He would be crucial for the survival of the coalition. And you can believe that he will make his allies feel it.

Ideologically, there is broad agreement among the right-wing alliance on an election platform of tax cuts and immigration restrictions, and far-right parties seem unlikely to pander to their more extreme supporters. But Berlusconi can, if he wants, draw a lot of red lines. Forza Italia’s position at the center means it is the only party that could theoretically shift to support a leftist or technocratic government, without paying a heavy price with voters.

” It is essential. In the center he can play a lot of games,” said Albertazzi. “It can remain relevant for the next five years.”

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