The aging “giant” Berlusconi wants to play the main role in the Italian elections
By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Unaware of old age, ill health, sex scandals and a criminal conviction, Silvio Berlusconi is at the heart of a new Italian election campaign as the four-time prime minister battles for a central role after the vote.
Berlusconi, who will turn 86 four days after the September 25 poll, seems sure to be on the winning side, even though he is now the junior partner of the right-wing alliance he once dominated.
Opinion polls give his conservative Forza Italia party around 8% of the vote. That compares to 12% for Matteo Salvini’s League and 24% for Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, his two far-right allies.
Together, the bloc should easily trump its divided leftist and centrist opponents, polls suggest.
Meloni looks poised to have the most influence in a future coalition, but she will likely still need Berlusconi’s backing to get it off the ground, allowing her to top her weight in terms of policy decisions and government posts.
Berlusconi, who first led Italy in 1994, was largely struck off after his last government was sunk 11 years ago by a debt crisis and a scandal over his ‘bunga bunga’ sex parties in his villa outside Milan.
He was convicted of tax evasion in 2013, had major heart surgery in 2016, became seriously ill with COVID in 2020, and has been hospitalized and discharged for the past year with various ailments. He often insults his words and is prone to confusion, but retirement seems the last thing on the billionaire media mogul’s mind.
“He wants to stay alive in a political sense, with things to do, things to offer, he wants to ‘be there’ as long as possible,” said Giovanni Orsina, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome who closely followed the evolution of Berlusconi. career.
Berlusconi unsuccessfully tried to become head of state in January and may be in the running for the post of president of the Senate in the new parliament. Even without a formal role, he will be active behind the scenes in an attempt to influence government policy.
He has cultivated an image as the right-wing bloc’s most moderate leader, but his election promises are as generous as ever, including minimum pensions of at least 1,000 euros ($991) a month and a flat tax rate of 23 %.
Most analysts believe that they are not sustainable for Italy’s fragile public finances.
He also helped bring down outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, joining forces with the League and the 5 Star Movement, another ruling party, in refusing to back the former head of the European Central Bank in a vote of parliamentary confidence.
Berlusconi strengthened her ties with League leader Salvini in an attempt to curb Meloni’s dominance of the right-wing bloc, but polls suggest she continued to gain at the expense of her allies.
“Forza Italia is slipping, I have it on 6-7%,” pollster Antonio Noto said on Friday, the last day before the blackout on the release of new opinion polls ahead of the vote.
Forza Italia’s support is now concentrated in Italy’s underdeveloped south among low- and middle-income people with strong personal allegiance to the leader rather than the party, Noto said.
“Berlusconi’s voters are people who have stuck with him over the years, people who still believe in his promises, he doesn’t get new voters,” he added.
Berlusconi has largely limited his pre-election media appearances to pre-recorded speeches and unchallenged interviews with the three national television stations he owns, but these precautions are still not enough to avoid slippages.
During a recent campaign, he said he was the last Italian Prime Minister to run “in 208” (instead of 2008) and promised to “remove” the tax wedge, which would require scrapping income tax and social security contributions completely.
This month he joined a rush of Italian politicians taking to TikTok to woo young voters, kicking off his short video with a usually cheerful “hi guys, here I am”, and admitting he was “a bit envious than most of its viewers would. be under 30 years old.
He later said the video had “broken all previous world records” in terms of viewership.
He also used his enormous financial resources to plaster train and metro stations with youthful-looking photos of himself alongside the slogan “now more than ever, choose a side”.
Despite Berlusconi’s inevitable decline in power and popularity, politics professor Orsina said his achievements over nearly 30 years still made him “a giant” compared to his rivals.
“For better or for worse, in future history books on Europe, Berlusconi will be four or five pages. Most of the other candidates in this election will barely be mentioned,” he said.
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(Additional reporting by Francesco Zecchini in Milan, editing by Ed Osmond)