Italy's eternal political curse: Silvio Berlusconi

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    Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks during a rally in Catania, Italy on November 2 [Reuters/Antonio Parrinello]
    Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks during a rally in Catania, Italy on November 2 [Reuters/Antonio Parrinello]

    The problems that have held Italy in their grips for decades now are serious, complex, and, to many, seemingly insurmountable. But amid widespread unemployment, corruption, public debt, economic decline, social instability, and even tragic football defeats, we Italians thought that at least one dark chapter of Italian history has been definitively closed: Silvio Berlusconi.

    Oh, we were so wrong. The four-time Italian prime minister, after having been expelled from parliament in 2011, has just re-entered the political arena. In the regional elections in Sicily, he backed a right-wing candidate, helped him win, and is now preparing to run in Italy's general elections next year.

    If it sounds absurd to you, well, it is. Despite the famous bunga bunga parties and other sex scandals, the numerous accusations of corruption and tax fraud, it seems that Berlusconi is not only back in Italian politics, but he might actually have a real chance of winning.

    But how, despite his expulsion from parliament, is he able to return to the political scene? And how is he so politically resilient? Does Italy have a soft spot for him? Or is he capitalising on the current situation and filling a political void?

    Berlusconi, the 'sacrificial lamb'

    Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and, as a result, was forbidden from running for office until at least 2019. But he has appealed his sentence at the European court of human rights and is hoping for a ruling that would enable his return to politics. Credit must be given where credit is due: Berlusconi knows how to choose collaborators, especially lawyers, who know how to find, in the tangle of various legislative systems, the loopholes through which even the most serious accusations can be "miraculously" taken care of.

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    But beyond these machinations, one needs an impressive level of imagination to come up with the idea of reviving Berlusconi, who is currently being investigated in a mafia-related case.

    All this, despite the fact that, for the most part, the international press views Berlusconi as guilty of having used (and ruined) Italy purely for personal gain. He persists in presenting himself as an innocent victim used as a scapegoat.

    He went as far as using the Catholic symbol of "the sacrificial lamb" in his bizarre attempts to rebrand himself.  Last April, he had Italian media film him while he and his young partner Francesca Pascale were bottle-feeding lambs saved from being culled for Easter. He even declared himself a vegetarian.

    In other words, during his so-called political "absence", Berlusconi was not at all absent. He was carefully working on cleaning his image and regaining his political strength, waiting for the right moment to sneak in to and attack Italy's political scene.

    Such an occasion presented itself at the regional elections in Sicily, which took place on November 6. The winner was the post-fascist politician Nello Musumeci - the head of a coalition of three political factions: Forza Italia (Forward Italy, Berlusconi's party), the xenophobic Lega Nord (Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini), and Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy, a neo-fascist party presided over by Giorgia Meloni).

    This coalition has been promoted as centre-right, but there is very little about it that is "centrist", given that Salvini and Meloni make no effort to hide their allegiance to the National Front of Marine Le Pen in France.

    Berlusconi presents himself as a mediating figure, a pragmatic man capable of containing and controlling the neofascist and xenophobic forces menacing Italy and Europe in these times of crisis. "Moderates have won," he declared, though what he was really saying is that he alone had won. And it's partly true.

    Berlusconi's new enemies

    Despite his advanced age, Berlusconi has not lost his extraordinary gift of persuasion. He is unparalleled at his skill to talk "from the gut", exploiting the fears and hopes of his listeners and making them feel he has the simple answers to all the difficult questions (even when his claims have little to no foundation and facts are distorted at will).

    But what has guaranteed his success for decades is his political acumen in picking the right enemy at the right time. Today his real enemy is no longer Matteo Renzi, who troubled him years ago with his brilliant oratorical skills and who now, after having resigned as prime minister in December 2016, has failed to form a unified left.

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    Nor is Berlusconi particularly concerned about the left which, despite being nominally in power, displays a remarkable inability to initiate dialogue with its voters and propose working solutions.

    The real enemies are two: the Movimento 5 Stelle  (the Five Star Movement) and people who don't want to vote. Both are the symptoms of Italy's public being jaded with traditional parties and politics and both threaten his successful return on the political scene.

    In Sicily, the Five Star Movement, founded in 2009 by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, won the highest percentage of the vote as a single party (34.7 percent, but the total vote of Berlusconi's coalition guaranteed it a majority by a small fraction. The movement attracts disappointed voters from the left and the right.

    In those same elections, more than 50 percent of eligible voters chose not to go to the polls. Berlusconi has taken immediate care of these "lost sheep", welcoming them into the herd of his electorate. He resurrected old refrains, like the one on abolishing the tax on a family's first house and ensuring a minimum retirement pension of 1000 euros. His promise of a "peaceful revolution that will change the State system from its roots" works well with disappointed, "orphaned" voters from the left and right and does not bother moderates.

    Berlusconi seems successful once again. Numerous left-leaning voters who have always had a visceral resistance to him, have started considering voting for him to avoid the return of fascism, anti-Europeanism and xenophobia. In other words, they plan to side with the lesser evil.

    The sad reality is that Italy, despite its glorious past, the "great beauty" of its landscape and its cultural and social patrimony, is getting poorer and poorer. And the worst sign of misery is the lack of hopes and alternatives.

    As we await the 2018 general elections, let's remember the well-known Dantean warning: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" (Inferno, Canto III, line 9).

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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