Will the Italian knight return?

Vidya Ram | Updated on February 05, 2018

Back on board: To play the king-making game

Having served his political sentence, Silvio Berlusconi’s now all set to influence the elections with his Forza Italia

When Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Italian prime minister in 2011 after 17 years at the top, having lost his majority, there was little doubt that the canny spin master would return to the political fold. Despite corruption scandals and the dire performance of the Italian economy under his tenure —not to mention his infamous “bunga bunga” parties and male chauvinism — Il Cavaliere (the knight) as he became known retained a certain level of public support domestically for a host or reasons, from those who believed he had rescued the country from the ‘brink’ of communism, to admiration for his apparent flouting of convention and the vast personal wealth he’d amassed.

However, a 2012 conviction of tax fraud has meant he’s been banned from standing for political office (thanks to a law passed after Berlusconi’s conviction, a person sentenced to two years in prison is banned from public office for at least six years).

This, however, has not prevented him from returning to a major role as a puppet master in Italian political life, ahead of national elections this March.

Battle lines drawn

The election will pit Berlusconi’s alliance, made up of his Forza Italia, and the rightwing, nationalist Brothers of Italy and Northern League, against the anti-establishment, euro-sceptic Five Star Movement (founded by comedian Beppe Grillo) and the ruling centre-left Democratic Party, whose fortunes have declined following a referendum on constitutional change attempted in 2016, which triggered the resignation of Matteo Renzi (once seen as a beacon of stability in Italian politics).

According to the most recent polls the Berlusconi-led alliance is in the lead, though it remains unclear whether the election will lead to an outright victory or a hung parliament.

However, Berlusconi’s coalition’s hopes were boosted by their win in regional elections in Sicily late last year, as the rightwing populist parties tapped into nationwide concerns around issues such as migration (Italy has been at the forefront of the refugee crisis, only receiving limited support from European neighbours in tackling the economic and social costs of the large number of people who have arrived in the country in the past two years), lacklustre growth and unemployment.

The Sicilian results, which delivered the Berlusconi-alliance a decisive win, were seen as a major blow for both the Five Star Movement, as well as the Democratic Party, and a harbinger of the March elections.

Both, the Five Star movement and Berlusconi’s alliance have in a way been tapping into similar populist sentiments. However, the Five Star Movement, which gained ground in some local elections, winning the mayoral election in Rome in 2016, has been tarnished by scandals around corruption, nepotism and cronyism — the very issues that the party had once portrayed itself as being tough on.

The Democratic Party has suffered since the ill-fated referendum of 2016 in which Renzi sought to bring in wide-ranging changes to the composition of parliament, and centralise power away from local government. It and its left allies have struggled to present a united front, dogged by internal divisions, including over their assessment of Renzi’s legacy.

Many gains

The Berlusconi alliance has sought to gain ground from its rivals on a number of fronts: picking up on the issue of immigration (which has, of course, loomed large in elections across Europe over the past couple of years) as well as crowd-pleasers, with a pledge to introduce a flat tax of 23 per cent (Italy’s rate of tax is amongst the highest in Europe outside Scandinavia), which he’s been pitching as the key to unlocking domestic growth.

Despite the Eurosceptic stance of his allies, Berlusconi has also sought to win friends in the EU: earlier this month he travelled to Brussels to meet European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, and Manfred Weber, the German leader of the centre-right block in the European Union, among others, offering the reassurance that his alliance remained committed to the EU and fundamental principles such as ensuring the deficit remained below the EU’s reference value of 3 per cent of GDP.

A recent active convert to social media, Berlusconi tweeted pictures of himself with Juncker, urging greater unity across Europe on issues of work and immigration, and is even touting the idea of a single European foreign and defence policy. Whatever their scepticism about his ability to live up to some of the promises (the flat tax pledge will do little to ease budgetary pressures), his alliance is likely to be looked upon favourably by Brussels and other European nations concerned about what a highly-Eurosceptic Five Star Movement could bring.

Far from glossing over his past, Berlusconi has sought to emphasise it, portraying himself and his allies as experienced pro-European forces in politics.

Of course, much remains unclear: To what extent will Berlusconi’s attempts to reinvent himself, and portray his coalition as a safe pair of hands convince at the ballot box, particularly given the widely-expressed concern about the fiscal impact of his tax plans? The Five Star Movement has rolled back on some of the more extreme pledges, including around a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro Zone, to appeal to a wider base.

Fractured scenario

Berlusconi’s return highlights the fractured nature of European politics in recent years, that has left election after election on a knife’s edge — from last year’s Dutch election that delivered centre-right Mark Rutte a victory (but only following a shift to the right), to the surprise losses of the Conservative government in Britain in the snap election, to the lacklustre performance of the Angela Merkel coalition in the German federal elections in September.

However, it is also interesting to note that since the Brexit referendum, while immigration has continued to be a major political card, questioning the membership of the European project is something politicians across the continent have shied away from.

Published on February 05, 2018

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