Silvio Berlusconi is far from finished in Italian politics

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On 18 November 2013, the Italian right-wing leader Silvio Berlusconi dissolved his party, Popolo della Libertà (PDL –- People of Freedom), the founding of which he had announced to his supporters in Milan exactly six years earlier. He also relaunched the party he had first created in 1993: Forza Italia (FI -– Go Italy). Allegedly born from the “fusion” of FI with the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (AN – National Alliance), throughout its short existence the PDL turned out to be extremely divided, lacking purpose and a clear sense of identity.

Following the loss of roughly half of the PDL’s votes in the 2013 general election (six million in total), and after its negative experience in government between 2008 and 2011 (characterised by the worsening of every national economic indicator), Berlusconi came to the conclusion that the PDL brand had become toxic. The decision to bring the experiment of the PDL to an end was also dictated by Berlusconi’s desire to take full control of the party he was leading once again.

In fact, as the preceding months had demonstrated, Berlusconi was no longer the “owner” of the PDL, and he could no longer be sure that it would consistently pursue the line he was dictating to it. Making it crystal clear that he wished to “resurrect” the FI of 1993 and recapture the “spirit” of those years, in his speech in November 2013 Berlusconi repeated word for word many of the promises and claims that he had made back in 1993 when he launched his political career.

According to recent polls, the re-established FI attracts roughly the same level of support the party enjoyed in the first election it contested. However, unlike in 1994, Berlusconi’s initiative is very unlikely to turn him into the fulcrum of Italian politics yet again.

Then and now

The main reason for this is that in the mid-nineties, FI managed to fill the huge gap that had opened up following the collapse of all governing parties in Italy due to high-profile investigations that had uncovered political corruption at the highest levels. Today, there is no such “opening”. The Italian political landscape remains crowded with other large parties which, on the basis of what we know at the moment, have a good chance of doing well at the polls if a general election is held in the near future.

Of these, the most important is the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD -– Democratic Party) which, according to current data, carries more than 30 per cent of the vote (versus FI’s 21 per cent). It has strong coalition potential, since any centre-left electoral alliance would need to gravitate around it. As explained in James Newell and Arianna Giovannini’s recent article, the mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi recently won the PD’s leadership contest (by a large margin), having argued for years that the party “needed to undergo fundamental renewal based on a generational turnover among its leaders and principal spokespeople”.

Whereas in 1994 Berlusconi could brand himself as a novelty, a savvy entrepreneur “loaned” to politics and ready to do for Italy what he had done for himself, today he would be leading his party into an election as the longest-serving former PM in Italian post-war history, someone who led his first cabinet when François Mitterrand and Boris Yeltsin were still in power. Even turning a blind eye to Berlusconi’s age (which is twice that of Renzi), it has become impossible for the right-wing leader to convincingly argue that he is, in any sense, “new”.

Although he will not be the centre-right candidate for prime minister in a forthcoming election, as he has lost the right to stand for public office for some years as a consequence of his recent conviction for tax evasion, he remains the leader of the largest party on the right. Given the Italian electorate’s widespread disillusionment with their traditional political class, the fact that Berlusconi is now very much a member of it will hardly help his cause or shore him up against competitors.

The major party competing with FI is the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S –- Five Star Movement), Western Europe’s most successful new party, which has managed to grow from 0 to 25 per cent of the national vote in four years. This is thanks to its criticism of the political class, the communication skills of its leader Beppe Grillo, and its ability to effectively integrate the use of new media with face-to-face campaigning.

Although support for the M5S has diminished by a few percentage points since the general election of April 2013, it still matches Berlusconi’s FI. Importantly, it is now the M5S that gives voice to those voters (and there are many) who are disappointed by politicians in general – and many of these voters previously voted for the PDL.

Back from the dead?

Speculating about the possible consequences of Berlusconi’s “return” is especially difficult because the current electoral law (passed by a Berlusconi government in 2005) was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in December 2013. This makes it unclear under what legislation the next election will be held. If, like the present one, the new law encourages the creation of pre-electoral coalitions, then not much is likely to change just because of FI’s re-establishment.

In that case, Berlusconi would be forced to try and revive a large coalition of the right as the general election approaches, and this will most probably have to include anyone who is willing to oppose the left. In the end, as a member of this right-wing coalition, FI would find itself fighting the election alongside those who have recently broken away from their leader in recent months, as he disbanded the PDL. The real game changer may instead turn out to be Matteo Renzi’s election as the PD’s leader, if he can attract those who have turned to the M5S in recent years, or supported the right. This is not to mention abstainers and the undecided –- the latter constituting two in five voters at present.

Like Berlusconi in 1994, Renzi has portrayed himself as the “enemy” of the traditional political class, and strengthened his credibility by waging war on his own party’s nomenclatura for several years. If he can convince a sufficient number of disillusioned voters to give a “renewed” PD a chance, the centre-left coalition may manage to win outright this time. That would be a turning point in Italian politics –- a clear-cut victory delivering strong majorities in both Houses of Parliament to the centre-left, which has failed to achieve this since Berlusconi launched his political career in 1994.

At this stage, however, this is merely speculation. While some foreign journalists have persistently announced Berlusconi’s political demise -– a sport that caught on shortly after the collapse of his first government in 1994 and continues to prove popular to this day –- more sophisticated observers of Italian politics have always been aware of his ability to give voice to an important section of the Italian electorate on crucial issues, such as taxation.

Having lost many votes, his Senate seat and the chance to hold public office for several years, it is now safe to say that Berlusconi’s star is waning. However, he is far from finished. He has a good understanding of what centre-right voters want, he remains very much in control of the media and financial empire through which he launched his political career twenty years ago, and he seems determined to keep leading the largest political party of the Italian right for the foreseeable future.

Given the stamina and determination he has amply demonstrated during the last two decades as a political leader, and despite the many setbacks of recent months, those who write Berlusconi off now as irrelevant and announce the end of his political career do so at their own peril. They are likely to be proven wrong yet again, as they have been many times in the past.

This piece originally appeared on the LSE’s EUROPP blog.

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