Five reasons Berlusconi returned to run in the upcoming Italian election

After leading a symbolic ‘walk-out’ among his center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) from the Italian senate on Thursday in opposition to the austerity measures and other reforms of caretaker prime minister Mario Monti, Il Cavaliere himself, Silvio Berlusconi (pictured above), today announced that he will lead the PdL as its candidate for prime minister in the upcoming Italian general election against a broad center-left alliance anchored by the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

So much for a ‘third republic’ in Italian politics — with the selection of the Italian left’s old-guard’s candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani, in the center-left’s broad primary earlier this month against Florence mayor Matteo Renzi (the latter remains Italy’s most popular politician), Italy remains, for now, stuck in the same-old politics as before.

Indeed, a Berlusconi-Bersani face-off would not have raised eyebrows a decade ago.

This time around, though, Berlusconi will face none of the political luck or goodwill that’s marked most of his career — he left office in November 2011 with Italian 10-year bond rates at an unsustainable 7% amid a growing financial crisis that threatened not only Italy, but the entire eurozone.  In addition, Berlusconi has little to show for his stint in office in the way of policy accomplishments, was convicted (subject to appeal) for tax evasion earlier this autumn, and he’s been shamed by accusations of sex with underage women at the now-famous and much derided ‘bunga bunga’ parties and using his influence for the benefit of at least one of those women, a Moroccan immigrant.

So his return to office in many ways would be met with not just disdain, but outright hostility, from outside investors and much of the European political establishment, including the leaders of the European Union, French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Berlusconi’s return has been met with chilly responses across the Italian political spectrum.  Monti, who is not contesting the election but has indicated he would be available to lead a second government in the event of a hung parliament, cautioned against populism and warned that Italy must avoid returning to a position whereby Italy’s finances threatened trigger the eurozone’s wider implosion.  Beppe Grillo, a blogger and social critic, as well as the leader of the populist and anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), savaged what he called Berlusconi’s ‘exhumation.’

Berlusconi’s one-time ally, Gianfranco Fini, who served as deputy prime minister, foreign minister and a former president of Italy’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Camera die Deputati), and who is running under the newly-formed Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom), also sounded alarm, noting that the PdL decision exposes Italy to additional risks.

Given the long odds — the PdL stands far behind the center-left coalition in every poll conducted for next year’s election (and sometimes behind the Five Star Movement, too) — why would the 76-year-old Berlusconi make a bid for a fourth term as Italy’s prime minister?

Here are five reasons why he could be making the race.

Because he can. Let’s face it — love him or hate him, Il Cavaliere is the politician who has come to define Italy’s current political epoch.  Despite the less-than-superb conditions from which he left office in 2000, such is his political power that Berlusconi can decide when the curtain will truly falls on the Berlusconi era.  He’s not as wealthy as he once was, but he certainly commands plenty of capital to deploy to give Bersani and the rest of the candidates quite a run.  He also controls much of Italy’s private media, and he’s never been shy in using his media power to push his political agenda.

He wants to win the presidency — and the immunity that comes with it.  Berlusconi had previously declared he was taking a pass on the election earlier in the year, but that changed with his conviction for tax evasion in October, when Berlusconi’s tone about returning to front-line politics became much more aggressive — he attacked Italy’s judiciary, long cast as a villain by Berlusconi, in his announcement today.  Although the statute of limitations will likely run out before Berlusconi will have exhausted his appeals for the tax fraud conviction, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Berlusconi craves a return to office for the immunity from prosecution it would provide, especially in light of the time his governments spent in the past passing various bills extending immunity to Berlusconi and his business interests.  Even if Berlusconi knows he cannot win the election, he knows that the new Italian parliament will elect a new president in May 2013.  Although it’s a largely ceremonial position, the current incumbent, Giorgio Napolitano, has said he won’t seek a new term.  So Berlusconi could well be angling for the presidency — perhaps in exchange for the PdL’s support for a second Monti government if the election results in a hung parliament — more than a distinct possibility.

He actually does want to win the spring election. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Berlusconi could actually win the election, although he faces by far the longest odds of his political career.  In the 2006 general election, widely tipped in favor of a  strong win for the center-left under Romano Prodi, Berlusconi came incredibly close to stealing a major upset and, in any event, provided a plucky opposition to the Prodi-led government that fell in 2008, after which Berlusconi returned to power.  For all the reasons outlined above — his money, his media influence, his power and experience as a thrice-elected prime minister, and the kind of audacity it takes for him to run in the 2013 election — Berlusconi has shown himself a fierce campaigner in the past, capable of feats that ordinary politicians simply haven’t been able to accomplish.  In a campaign where no party seems set to win an absolute majority, Berlusconi’s task isn’t impossible, especially if he manages to co-opt the populist anti-austerity tones of Grillo’s Five Star Movement (recall that Berlusconi’s first party was coined, essentially, from a football chant — Forza Italia).

He believes blocking Bersani from power is more important than winning.  It’s no secret that Berlusconi has, in particular, very little regard for much of the current leadership of Italy’s center-left, and that includes Bersani as well.  Given that much of the current guard of the Italian left comes from what used to be Italy’s communist party, Berlusconi has railed against Bersani and his predecessors in past election campaigns as ‘communists,’ although Bersani’s really no further to the left than Hollande or any other mainstream European leftist.  In fact, Berlusconi had kind words for Renzi as a figure who could bring a decidedly more centrist and social democratic tone to the Italian left — he even hinted that he would have been content to stand aside in the 2013 election in the event that Renzi won the center-left primary.  So even if Berlusconi knows he cannot win, he may be satisfied to throw the result into sufficient chaos as to result in a hung parliament and a second Monti government, thereby denying Bersani a chance to lead Italy’s government.

He’s afraid that the PdL could crumble in the wake of an Alfano-led loss.  You need only look to France to see what happens when a strong leader leaves the spotlight — without former president Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm, the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) has descended into factional infighting.  Although PdL secretary and former justice minister Angelino Alfano had been Berlusconi’s favorite to succeed him at the helm of the PdL, Berlusconi said today that he was running because it takes time for a new figure to emerge as leader.  It’s possible that Berlusconi wants to buy some time for Alfano by leading the party in what will almost certainly be an impossible task in 2013, preserving an opportunity for Alfano after what could be a rout.

But there’s no shortage of options for right-leaning voters in the election, even with a united PdL behind Berlusconi.  Those options include:

  • Fini’s center-right new FLI party;
  • Pier Ferdinando Casini’s Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), a small centrist party comprised of former Christian Democrats that has indicated it could form a governing coalition with Bersani;
  • the Liga Nord (Northern League), dedicated to greater autonomy for Italy’s more prosperous northeastern region;
  • Movimento per le Autonomie (MpA, Movement for Autonomies), a group of parties in Sicily and throughout southern Italy dedicated to southern autonomy; and
  • La Destra (The Right), a small conservative and nationalist (some might say neofascist) party led by Italian senator and former regional president of Lazio, Francesco Storace, who has ties to Rome’s current mayor, Gianni Alemanno.  Alemanno, a stridently conservative mayor, is gaining an increasingly national profile, and although he still currently backs the PdL, he could easily one day use La Destra as a vehicle for his own personal political advancement.

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