Berlusconi’s Final Act

Berlusconi’s Final Act

ROME – In his farewell video, Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said that he was not going to give up politics — on the contrary, he would double his efforts to change the country. His supporters have been doing their bit too, on the streets, with posters, and on air. On the face of it, there is no reason to presume that Mr. Bunga Bunga has gone bye-bye for good.

Indeed, it was not really a farewell message at all. After Berlusconi resigned, he pointed out — quite correctly — that he had survived a vote of confidence and that he still has an absolute majority in the Senate, where he has already said that he can pull the plug on Mario Monti’s new government whenever he wants. And even as he made this threat, Berlusconi declared that his resignation had been "statesman-like"; in his version, he gave up power for the good of the country.

It was significant that The Economist titled its article "Addio Silvio" (goodbye, Silvio) not "Arriverderci" (see you again) — a hope rather than a statement. But those celebrating his resignation in Rome last Saturday were too smart to think either that the country’s problems were over or that Berlusconi had left for good. There has been no political equivalent of the stake through the heart; a resounding defeat either in Parliament or at the polls.

There were even suggestions last week that one of the reasons Berlusconi stepped down was the dip in shares of his television empire, Mediaset. On Wednesday, they tumbled 12.5 percent. Perhaps the conflict of interest in owning a large chunk of the Italian media had come back to bite him hard and where it hurts — in his wallet. An alternate theory held that by leaving office, Berlusconi and his companies would have to forego lucrative government publicity contracts. The fact that both theses are plausible shows how deep the marriage between public and private interest was (is?) in Berlusconi’s Italy.

Even though his departure seemed sudden, it was controlled and planned. His video message aired across the networks. And although he looked very drawn and tired, his words were as buoyant as the old days. The fact that a prime minister bowed out with a special message is exceptional — normally, Italian leaders confine themselves to a short statement conceding defeat and wishing their successors well. Not Silvio Berlusconi. He is not the retiring type.

There is a real possibility that he will make another run for power either in the near future, if the Monti government shows itself unable to calm the markets and elections are called early next year, or in 2013, when the legislature reaches its natural term, even if Monti is successful in bringing Italy’s massive debt under control. To do it, Monti will have made Italians pay a high price economically and socially and the political parties will be able to blame him rather than themselves. Given Berlusconi’s reluctance to support Monti, he will try and present himself as the return to the good times.

In either scenario, Berlusconi will have his television stations — the three he owns and some residual support in two of the RAI public channels. Monti’s government has neither the time nor the style to move Berlusconi supporters out of positions of power. He still has his print media, dailies, and weeklies, and of course he still has in practice unlimited financial resources. He has lost that other commodity he used so well over the past year, government patronage — a number of his new supporters last year came over with an offer of an undersecretaryship or the like — but he can, and no doubt will, promise jobs in his future government. It is still Italy, after all.

The other element that helped keep him in power for eight of the last 10 years is almost as valid today as before: divisions in the opposition. For the moment, at least, most of the left, all of the center-left, and the center have united around Monti to address the crisis, but we can be pretty sure that they will start bickering as soon as elections come ‘round.

Worse, there is at least one dark scandal cloud hanging over the main center-left party, the Democratic Party (PD) — allegations of illegal financing in Milan over many years, with the main person involved closely linked to party secretary Pier Luigi Bersani. Whatever the truth of the allegations, we can be sure that the Berlusconi media will hammer the story.

Despite the economic and financial disaster that Italy finds itself it, Berlusconi still has an approval rating of over 20 percent — higher than that of the U.S. Congress. The polls give the center left parties a good majority, but over the last few months the biggest and still-growing group consists of the undecided and non-voters. In the past, Berlusconi has been able to bring them out.

There is also the possibility that he will try to act from behind the scenes and hand over formal power gracefully to his party secretary, Angelino Alfano. But Alfano is a lightweight and Berlusconi likes the limelight too much. It is hard to imagine him staying quiet.

Berlusconi faces many obstacles to making a comeback. No longer prime minister, he will find it much more difficult to avoid the hearing in his four trials (three for corruption and one for abuse of power and sex with an underage prostitute). His party, like the center-left, is divided. He is also 75 and showing his age, so it will not be easy to appear like Italy’s future, rather than its past.

Still, after years of declaring that Berlusconi was finished and about to leave the scene, it would be presumptuous to say that he will just fade away now. The last act will be full of surprises.