Return of the Silviosaur

Italian politics these days is like Sunset Boulevard meets Jurassic Park.


With one tactless remark last week, an Italian cabinet minister may have inadvertently triggered the fall of the country’s technocratic government and the return to center stage of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Corrado Passera, the normally suave and experienced economic development minister told a television interviewer that "a return to the past would not be good for Italy." The remark was an explicit reference to Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà-led government, which stepped down in November of last year. The immediate reaction was a salvo of criticism from leaders of the PdL and the party’s decision to withdraw its support from Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government. Berlusconi then strongly hinted that he was planning to throw his hat back in the ring: "I cannot let my country fall into a recessive spiral without end. It’s not possible to go on like this," he said in a statement, noting that he had been "besieged by requests" to run.

On Saturday, Monti announced that his government would resign, saying the PdL’s withdrawal of support clearly represented "a no-confidence vote for the government and its policies." Later that day, Berlusconi confirmed what was already obvious to everyone. "I am running to win," he told reporters. Elections must now be held within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament, and the world will wait to see if  Berlusconi can return to the prime minister’s office for a fourth time. If he does, the consequences for Italy and for the rest of Europe are likely to be dire. Even if he does not win, the negative effects will color the whole campaign.

Berlusconi had been hinting at this for a while. A couple of weeks ago, he promised  that he would "pull a dinosaur out of the hat"; the implication was that he was the dinosaur. The given explanation is predictable: Monti’s economic policies, according to Berlusconi, are not working, and he has to return in order to save Italy… again. But, given that this is Berlusconi we’re talking about, the real reasons are more complicated.

The first is Sunset Boulevard on the Tiber. Berlusconi is the aging star who refuses to accept that he is past his prime and still craves the adulation and attention of fawning fans and the media. He is 76 and despite (or sometimes because of) the very visible pancake makeup, he looks his age and more. His comeback bid is a dangerous ploy, as he also knows that he risks an electoral disaster and bitter criticism from his own former party faithful. The potential for humiliation is likely the reason he has waited so long to jump back in. But that risk evidently wasn’t enough.

Berlusconi may also want to return to politics in order to protect himself and his friends. Last week, the cabinet debated a decree that would prevent anyone convicted of crimes carrying a two-year sentence or more from running for office. As the law would only apply to those convicted at all three levels of Italy’s court system, only a couple of parliamentarians would be affected — though quite a few more at lower levels of government.

Even though Berlusconi has faced dozens of criminal indictments over the years and was convicted of tax fraud by a Milan court in October, he has never been convicted at the highest level. But there is talk that before the law is passed, it might be modified to include first- or second-level convictions, in which case Berlusconi would be in trouble personally. The current draft law says that anyone convicted while in office will have to stand down. Berlusconi is expecting judgment in February on the so-called Ruby case, in which he is accused of soliciting an underage prostitute and abusing his power. That would only be a lowest-level conviction, but he likely feels the noose tightening. Some of his close associates, including longtime friend Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, who was convicted at all three levels for false accounting and given a sentence of two years and three months, are feeling the heat as well.

Berlusconi and PdL party secretary Angelino Alfano have also made it clear that another reason for their decision to abandon Monti’s government is the lack of progress on justice reform, though they have a fairly unique understanding of that concept. When Berlusconi was prime minister and Alfano was justice minister, they did nothing to answer the most pressing issue facing Italian justice: the years it takes to reach a definitive sentence. This is not only a problem of equity and justice but a serious discouragement to investment; no one is going to invest in Italy if they can’t expect the courts to decide civil cases.

Berlusconi’s main concern, by contrast, is that judges and magistrates should bear personal civil liability for their actions. In his ideal world, if a prosecution fails, the prosecutor should be personally liable for damages to the accused. It is a measure that smells of vendetta, as well as a way to discourage any prosecutor, not just the over-zealous. His other hobbyhorse is limiting police use of telephone taps. It is no coincidence that wire taps, both those used in court proceedings and those leaked to the media, like the conversations of the girls who went to his parties, have been very damaging to his reputation.

According to current polls, a return to power would still be a long shot for Berlusconi. The center-right is on a downward slope at the moment; they lost regional elections in Sicily in October, and the PdL is currently polling anywhere between 12 and 20 percent nationwide, a disaster compared to the 37 percent they garnered in 2008. Monti had been polling at around 47 percent prior to his announcement. But it’s definitely to Berlusconi’s advantage to have the election sooner — when public anger against Monti’s pro-European, pro-austerity policies is high — rather than later, when party infighting will only drag the PdL further down.

There’s also a new player on the scene whose emergence may be to the former prime minister’s advantage. The Five Star Movement, a recently created party led by the popular comedian Beppe Grillo — a kind of Genoese Stephen Colbert — has emerged as the second most popular party in the country, according to pollsters. The party’s ideology is mostly left-wing but is defined more by anger against Italy’s traditional parties and politics. Berlusconi, though often a target of Grillo’s barbs himself, hopes to tap into this discontent and regain some of the alienated center-right voters who have embraced the new party’s populist, euroskeptic message. About half of Italy’s electorate is either undecided or planning not to vote. They do not like Monti’s austerity measures or the old parties. If Berlusconi can mobilize even a small proportion of them, he will increase his share enormously.

The consequences of Berlusconi’s threatened return have already been felt. The spread between German and Italian government bonds, which had dipped below 300 for the first time since early last year, immediately jumped to well over 300 after his announcement last week, a tangible demonstration that Berlusconi’s claim to be "saving the Italian economy" was nonsense. European stocks plunged on Monday following news of Monti’s departure and the potential of Berlusconi’s return. It now falls to the old triumvirate of President Giorgio Napolitano, the European Union, and the markets to persuade Berlusconi to step back. If they fail, Italy may once again find itself at the mercy of the Silviosaur.

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