Berlusconi Rises From the Ashes

The former Italian prime minister has been reinvented as an unlikely moderating force.

By , the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani.
Silvio Berlusconi smiles as he waves before a flag.
Silvio Berlusconi smiles as he waves before a flag.
Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Italy’s Forza Italia party, acknowledges supporters at the end of a rally in Rome on Oct. 19, 2019. Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

Silvio Berlusconi, it seems, has woken up from his pipe dream of becoming Italy’s next president. The former prime minister had a daring plan to get enough support among members of the Italian Parliament to succeed the incumbent Sergio Mattarella as his seven-year mandate is coming to an end. That plan has collapsed after months of hectic negotiations and wild speculation about the political future of the 85-year-old mostly known for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and corruption scandals.

On Jan. 24, electors will begin the voting process to select the next head of state, a ceremonial role that in recent decades has seen its de facto power increase; recent presidents have dissolved cabinets and appointed prime ministers, as was the case last February, when Mattarella nominated now-Prime Minister Mario Draghi to lead the government in order to manage the country’s pandemic response and enact reforms.

In the past, the fight for the presidency has been a stage for dramatic political vendettas and spectacular capitulations—all behind closed doors. The president is elected by senators and deputies in Parliament and a number of local representatives through secret ballot voting. Traditionally, instead of openly racing for the post, candidates are selected through inscrutable negotiations among parties. Those who aspire to get the job typically keep a low profile and avoid talking overtly about their ambitions.

Silvio Berlusconi, it seems, has woken up from his pipe dream of becoming Italy’s next president. The former prime minister had a daring plan to get enough support among members of the Italian Parliament to succeed the incumbent Sergio Mattarella as his seven-year mandate is coming to an end. That plan has collapsed after months of hectic negotiations and wild speculation about the political future of the 85-year-old mostly known for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and corruption scandals.

On Jan. 24, electors will begin the voting process to select the next head of state, a ceremonial role that in recent decades has seen its de facto power increase; recent presidents have dissolved cabinets and appointed prime ministers, as was the case last February, when Mattarella nominated now-Prime Minister Mario Draghi to lead the government in order to manage the country’s pandemic response and enact reforms.

In the past, the fight for the presidency has been a stage for dramatic political vendettas and spectacular capitulations—all behind closed doors. The president is elected by senators and deputies in Parliament and a number of local representatives through secret ballot voting. Traditionally, instead of openly racing for the post, candidates are selected through inscrutable negotiations among parties. Those who aspire to get the job typically keep a low profile and avoid talking overtly about their ambitions.

This time around, Berlusconi broke all conventions by making clear, through aides in his center-right Forza Italia party, his intention of running for president. Berlusconi’s aides worked around the clock to persuade independents to support him in the election.

It all began as a classic Berlusconi pasquinade. Months ago, with the customary mix of chutzpah and casual bravado, Berlusconi’s team began to call up MPs to get them on board. He sent campaign brochures to every single voter, including to representatives of the rival Democratic Party. The whole plan was half-jokingly codenamed “Operation Squirrel.” The Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reported that his campaign workers even approached an MP and offered money in exchange for his vote—which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that Berlusconi was convicted for the same crime in 2015.

Of course, there was pushback. Il Fatto Quotidiano launched a petition against Berlusconi’s candidacy, naming him the “guarantor of the prostitution,” a pun on “guarantor of the constitution,” one of the titles of the Italian president. Still, for a little while, Berlusconi’s fantasy seemed to become a quasi-viable option, and observers began to take his bid seriously and keep tabs on potential supporters in Parliament.

In the end, though, he failed to secure enough votes, according to one of his aides tasked with persuading MPs to support him. Berlusconi was “quite sad” about it, the aide said. Currently, it’s unclear who will be selected, although Draghi is a front-runner. (Draghi has intentionally remained ambiguous on whether he’s interested in the presidency or would instead prefer to continue leading the current government.)

Yet even though Berlusconi’s move appears to have been fanciful, his misplaced hopes stemmed from his very real political rehabilitation, which has been long in the making.


In the early 2010s, the idea that Berlusconi could be redeemed seemed nearly impossible. Over his nearly 20 years at the top of Italian politics, marked by widely reported sex scandals, conflicts of interest, and abuses of power—including a conviction and then acquittal for having sex with a minor—the media mogul-turned-politician came to represent all that was wrong with the country.

In 2011, during the darkest days of the European sovereign debt crisis, Berlusconi was forced to resign as Italy’s prime minister under pressure from the European Central Bank as markets in turmoil wreaked further financial instability in Italy. He was replaced by the former EU Commissioner Mario Monti, whose technocratic government was tasked with implementing the structural reforms that prior administrations could not during the previous 15 years. Berlusconi stepped down in disgrace, and there was a widespread sense that the country had finally gotten rid of its worst leader since dictator Benito Mussolini.

Berlusconi continued to have a seat in Parliament until 2013, when he was ousted after being convicted for tax fraud. His critics hailed the moment as a political catharsis, even though he continued to serve as leader of Forza Italia. But the demise of Berlusconi’s egotistic politics gave way to even more ominous forces in line with the illiberal wave that hit the world over the past decade—and which was not limited to the rise of the nationalist far-right.

Indeed, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement was originally born as a reaction to Berlusconi’s style of politics. The party, which was co-founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo, originally focused on fighting corruption in Italy’s political system and mixed populist messages with proposals traditionally associated with the left, such as universal basic income. But the throngs of proudly nonprofessional Five Star politicians elected in the early 2010s who promised to “open Parliament like a can of tuna” turned out to have many of the same problems they planned to fix. Grillo, for instance, is currently under investigation for his opaque ties with lobbyists and corporations.

“Compared to Salvini, Berlusconi is a champion of reliability.”

Meanwhile, nationalists such as Matteo Salvini, the former Italian deputy prime minister and now federal secretary of the far-right League party, and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, dominate the conservative front. In the European Parliament, the League sits in the Identity and Democracy group with the French far-right National Rally party and has cultivated strong ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meloni is the president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party and works side by side in the European Parliament with the controversial Polish far-right Law and Justice party.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, once a dominant political party, is now the frail junior partner of a center-right coalition with the League and Brothers of Italy, each of which polled around 20 percent in October, while Berlusconi’s party polled around 7 percent. Yet Berlusconi is using his residual leverage to push those allies toward the center, dragging them—so far uselessly but decisively—away from their anti-EU platforms.

Amid these developments, Berlusconi’s former opponents began to reevaluate him. In their eyes, he has become an unlikely moderating force.

In 2017, for instance, the journalist and essayist Eugenio Scalfari, who in the 1970s helped   found La Repubblica, the paper that most sharply criticized the prime minister during his tenure, said he would prefer to entrust the country again to Berlusconi rather than hand it to Luigi Di Maio, then-leader of the Five Star Movement. Many on the left were furious about Scalfari being so soft.

Then, last September, Enrico Letta, the leader of the Democratic Party, joined Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and president of the European Commission, for a talk on Prodi’s latest book. Among the many things the two agreed on, one was perhaps surprising: They both missed Berlusconi. “It’s clear that Berlusconi’s brand of conservatism has nothing to do with the one of Salvini and Meloni,” Letta said, noting that, unlike Berlusconi, the two rising leaders are not firmly pro-EU.

Even Draghi has a warm and cordial relationship with Berlusconi and has relied on him to moderate his far-right allies. Draghi’s attitude has contributed further to legitimizing Berlusconi as a reliable political partner.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a centrist and leader of the Italia Viva party, has probably been the most vocal politician pushing the left to fundamentally reconsider Berlusconi’s legacy. “We fought Forza Italia for a lifetime, but next to Meloni, Salvini, and the Five Star Movement, it looks like a pillar of civility,” Renzi said last October. “Compared to Salvini, Berlusconi is a champion of reliability.”


In less than a decade, history taught Italians that things could always get worse. But that doesn’t mean Berlusconi is exempt of blame.

“I see why political leaders now consider Berlusconi someone they can do business with, but it’s ironic to see him as a moderate,” said the British writer Bill Emmott, former editor in chief of the Economist. In 2001, the magazine featured Berlusconi on the cover under the headline: “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.” Emmott said he hasn’t changed his personal views on Berlusconi, though in recent years he reluctantly praised his role as a stabilizer of a fragile political system shaken by populist forces.

“It’s true that relative to the other right-wing leaders, he’s a moderating force, but the deeper truth is that Berlusconi is directly responsible for Salvini and Meloni,” Emmott said. “He made impossible any succession, prevented a new generation of politicians from emerging, and killed [the careers of] anyone who tried. No wonder he fueled the appearance of far-right leaders. Berlusconi is a moderating force for a problem he created.”

Ezio Mauro, a former editor in chief of La Repubblica and fierce critic of Berlusconi, believes general opinion of Berlusconi has only changed over the years because he is out of power. “Now he doesn’t need any longer to use the executive power to bend the legislative and judiciary branches for his personal advantage,” Mauro said.

According to Mauro, the actual difference between Berlusconi and his far-right allies lies in their international positioning. Berlusconi, he said, is “firmly anchored” to the European Union, the West, and liberal values; even his notorious personal friendship with Putin did not affect his government’s position toward Russia, which cannot be said of Salvini and Meloni, who openly advocate for a stronger alliance with Moscow.

“Theoretically, Berlusconi is certainly a liberal, but in reality, his liberalism is sterilized, so much so that he hasn’t been able to push his allies toward the center,” said Mauro, who now sees Berlusconi as “politically neutralized.”

Berlusconi begs to differ. Every time he has been declared politically dead, he has risen again from the ashes. Becoming the next president of Italy would have been the ultimate stamp of approval, but after realizing it was not a viable option, according to media reports, he’s now working to retain some power by playing kingmaker and trying to make himself relevant in the complex negotiations that will elect the next head of state. If he’s successful, he could shift the country’s political balance. For decades, the head of state has been picked by center-left figures; if Parliament ends up electing someone blessed by Berlusconi, it would be a victory, in a sense, for the once-disgraced leader. Berlusconi might once again be at the center of Italy’s political scene.

Mattia Ferraresi is the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani. Twitter: @mattiaferraresi

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