The Bunga-Bunga Moderate

How Silvio Berlusconi successfully reinvented himself as a straight-laced member of the establishment.

Then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the Italy-France Summit in Rome, Italy on April 26, 2011. (Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)
Then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the Italy-France Summit in Rome, Italy on April 26, 2011. (Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)

The political career of Silvio Berlusconi has always been marked by the surreal, but perhaps never more so than now. With Italy’s national elections looming on March 4, the 81-year-old former prime minister — the man who more or less invented modern populism in the West — is now presenting himself as the consummate moderate.

He’s not just been anti-populist, but also loudly pro-European; not just a socially conscious liberal, but also a lamb-hugging animal lover. And far from being finished — a status conferred on him many times before — he is now seen as the favorite for victory in Italy’s coming election.

All this might seem absurd to anyone who has studied this man’s political and business career over the last 25 years or so. Didn’t he essentially write the crude anti-establishment playbook now being followed by U.S. President Donald Trump? Silvio Berlusconi created a party from nothing in 1994, and he based a series of election campaigns around a norm-defying, post-political, anti-party message linked to his personal success as a businessman and sporting entrepreneur, and his genius as a TV personality. He preached a diet of low taxes and less state, but also personal charisma and power.

The Berlusconi era, which divided Italians and baffled foreigners from 1994 until 2011, was anything but moderate. That was reflected in the many political scandals and legal travails he faced, with allegations ranging from corruption to sex with minors. (The resulting trials have thus far ended in only one final conviction, for tax evasion, in 2013.) It was also clear in his strained relations with his peers in Europe, who weren’t enamored with his economic stewardship after the financial crisis of 2008. When Berlusconi was forced out of office in 2011 in the middle of the euro crisis, most commentators saw it as a move engineered from Brussels, with strong support in Paris and Berlin, due to his refusal to vigilantly abide by the European Union’s economic rules.

Berlusconi’s transformation is perhaps, in part, a late-life conversion to political propriety; he may have finally aged out of some aspects of his wild, fiery persona. But it’s also the latest expression of his strategic acumen. He once benefited from flouting the EU establishment, but now it’s an advantage to be seen wooing Eurocrats in Brussels. Berlusconi is presenting himself as a moderating force, because he has recognized that Italian politics itself has changed.

In the 1990s, Berlusconi, along with the regionalist Lega Nord party, were the only real populists in town. Now, he has been outflanked by a whole new series of anti-political movements. The most potent of these is the Five Star Movement. An internet-based grouping of (mainly) young people who have never been involved in politics before, led by an ex-comedian (Beppe Grillo) the Five Star Movement has captured the discontent many Italians feel with how they have been governed. The rapid success of the movement led to it becoming the largest party amongst the Italian-based electorate (not including those who voted abroad) in the 2011 local elections, and to stunning victories by unknown candidates in cities as important as Rome and Turin.

The Five Star Movement has stolen Berlusconi’s populist methods and modernized his tactics. Berlusconi rode to power as a master of television, while the movement treats the internet as the primary means of organizing politics. (Berlusconi — or his team — is just beginning to see the potential of Twitter, but nobody could claim it’s his most natural medium.) The Five Star Movement is also more intensely anti-political than Berlusconi ever was. It claims to be neither on the left nor right (though its messaging is increasingly anti-immigrant), and it refuses all political alliances.

Berlusconi is now telling all and sundry that he is the only real bulwark against a Five Star Movement victory that would worry the rest of Europe, given the long record of anti-European pronouncements by Grillo’s movement. Even the veteran journalist Eugenio Scalfari — a fierce opponent of Berlusconi — has said that he would prefer him to a Five Star victory.

But Berlusconi can also present himself as a moderating force within his own loose center-right coalition. In part, that’s simply by virtue of his longevity — everyone in Italy can agree that he is a familiar face. But his moderate image also comes by way of comparison with his own partners.

The most dynamic, and frightening, figure in Italian politics today is Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord. Salvini has nationalized the Lega’s previously regionalist message, with a focus on strident and extreme anti-immigration propaganda. This has struck a chord with the many Italians who are frustrated that their country, given its long border on the Mediterranean Sea, has been bearing the brunt of the ongoing migration crisis linked to Syria and Africa. Moreover, neo-fascism, which has never gone away in the country since the Mussolini era, is making increased headway among many Italians.

That Berlusconi is now benefiting by comparison with the rise of neo-fascists is ironic, given that he was the first postwar mainstream leader to rehabilitate them during the 1990s. But the former prime minister seems to have rightly calculated that the Italian public would forget (or at least forgive) his own previous positions – from tensions with European leaders, to flirtations with xenophobia — if provided with a sufficient volume of new images on their television sets suggesting a strenuous commitment to contrary positions. As usual, he has refused any halfway measures: If he’s going to run as a paragon of virtue and responsibility, why not hug animals for the television cameras?

Berlusconi has always understood the nature of political alliances and, once again, he has maximized his forces with minimum effort for the upcoming election. But caution is needed here. It is extremely unlikely that Berlusconi will ever hold the office of prime minister again, or even the ceremonial position of president of Italy (the head of state elected by Parliament every seven years). He is too divisive a character for that to happen, and he still carries too much personal and judicial baggage.

Moreover, although Berlusconi’s coalition is ahead in the polls, the new electoral system is designed to create two main outcomes. First, it will almost certainly keep the Five Star Movement out of power. They would need an extraordinary result, given their lack of allies, to win the elections, and Grillo has said time and again that they will not form political alliances after the election, either. The second outcome is that, in all probability, nobody will win the election. It is possible that Berlusconi’s coalition will triumph, but very unlikely that they will win enough seats to govern alone

This is now par for the course in Europe. No party wins elections outright anymore (see Germany and the United Kingdom). Some sort of coalition, probably with the moderate Democratic Party (which has suffered from a series of damaging splits), will have to be cobbled together in Italy, too. And while the media will present the outcome of the election as a Berlusconi victory, his party is at 17 percent in the polls, a long way from the heady days of the 1990s and 2000s.

It is also clear that his “moderate” stance is not entirely sincere. Berlusconi has always been able to mold his appeal to the mood of the electorate, hence the series of electoral promises in his current program for Italians tired of austerity, privatization, and cuts. Will he be able to deliver? Of course not. He never has. But, in an important sense, it doesn’t matter. For Berlusconi, and the wider Italian political class, the important thing has long been to hang on to power; power for power’s sake has been the consummate ambition. In this aim, at least, Italian politicians have proved extremely efficient over the years. 2018 will be no exception.

John Foot is professor of modern Italian history at University of Bristol.

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