Will Berlusconi's return check rise of populist forces in Italy?

His reputation was further tarnished as owner of the AC Milan football club, a sport that arguably shows the modern gladiators.

By Mariella Radaelli & Jon Van Housen

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Published: Sun 14 Jan 2018, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 14 Jan 2018, 11:10 PM

Even in a land of imperial legends, the tale of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has reached almost mythic proportions. Long basking in the glow of power and fame, he fell far as he was banished from office for tax fraud and derided for his moral failings.
His reputation was further tarnished as owner of the AC Milan football club, a sport that arguably shows the modern gladiators. The once-supreme team plummeted victories and financial viability, only to be sold to Chinese investors, leaving its fans in the San Siro coliseum bewildered and angry.
Yet the colourful politician, who is referred by some as Il Cavaliere (knight of industry), is back. Some are even calling him a potential kingmaker in the upcoming national elections set for March 4. The 81-year-old billionaire, who underwent heart surgery in 2016, has revitalised his conservative Forza Italia political party and forged alliances with others on the right wing of the spectrum.
The coalition could garner enough votes to stave off a clear victory by the populist Five-Star Movement, which according to polls would have nearly 30 per cent of the vote, not enough to take complete power.
"Berlusconi succeeded in his third political resurrection," says Stefano Folli, a political commentator for La Repubblica newspaper. "When the former editor of The Economist Bill Emmott defines him as a stability factor against populist parties he gives voice to a prevailing sentiment in part of the European establishment. Italy needs stability and forming a new government after the elections will not be easy for anyone. We look very closely to the Italian President Sergio Mattarella who has an earnest institutional responsibility. Under these conditions, Berlusconi may perhaps be useful, despite many reservations."
Ugo Magri, La Stampa's political commentator, knows the diminutive former leader all too well.  "Berlusconi has not changed," he says. But "as a genuine Italian, he knows how to very skillfully detect the mood of Italians tired of failed experiments". The longest-serving Italian prime minister ever, Berlusconi is using his usual colourful language to stress the inexperience of the Five-Star's politicians. "They don't have the ability to run a condo association, let alone a country," he said.
To some Italians his comeback is reassuring. "He holds no surprises because he is an old acquaintance and presents himself like something pre-owed, fully guaranteed," says Magri. "Even some left-wingers now consider him less dangerous, a continuity in the political system."
He paid his debt to society for tax fraud and after required voluntary service spent long months in silence, notes Magri. "He sounded almost new when he reappeared, but we know he's always the same, only older."
With his party running in a coalition of other right-wing parties - the Northern League and Fratelli d'Italia - Berlusconi claims they could get 45 per cent of the vote, enough to name the next prime minister. But current polls say they cannot reach the 40 per cent threshold needed.
"Those who rehabilitate him are likely wrong and will be very disappointed," says Magri. "He's old, he cannot get too busy. Then he is always grappling with legal problems. His condition is like an active volcano. Judicial vicissitudes could re-explode. Another limitation is that he governed for many years and left behind no great traces of things done."
Criminal convictions and high-profile moral missteps would normally be enough to send a leader into the political wilderness, but it could be a case of the devil you know is better than the one you don't.
Folli notes "Berlusconi benefits from the lack of credibility in the overall political scene and the fear of a leap in the dark represented by the Five-Star Movement. Then there is the circumstance of the country today - a fragile economic recovery after years of recession and the need to not disperse it."
The memory of the economic collapse under Berlusconi is still alive, says Folli, yet he thinks the old warrior could have been seasoned by his travails. "The Berlusconi of 2018 is more cautious. He knows that this is his last chance and will try not to make mistakes that are too serious," he says.
Ever the dealmaker, Berlusconi's comeback is fraught with political ambiguity, Magri stresses. "He presents himself before Europe and Italy as the one who will keep (the extreme right) at bay. It's like he is saying they won't be able to move Italy too far to the very right because 'I guarantee it'. But Berlusconi risks becoming a Trojan horse for them instead."
The biggest hurdle to traditional parties is voter support for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led from the behind the scenes by a man also banned from public office for causing fatalities while driving, the former comedian Beppe Grillo.  The movement he founded is often criticised for its very young, inexperienced candidates.
Folli says, "the establishment parties, of which Forza Italia is a part, can offer a more responsible image, but to truly defeat the Five Star Movement, I don't think so."
Whatever the outcome, many are impressed, whether reluctantly or not, by this latest chapter in the saga of the old campaigner Silvio Berlusconi.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at the Luminosity Italia news agency in Milan

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