Silvio Berlusconi faithful hope for political revival

Ft.com – Silvio Berlusconi was uncharacteristically restrained as he served his last day of a year-long sentence of community service at an Alzheimer’s clinic in the Milanese suburbs.
“My time with the ill and the volunteers has been a touching experience and a serene break,” the 78-year-old former prime minister and media tycoon told reporters, without making any big statement about his political intentions.

Mr Berlusconi has spent four hours of every Friday since last May at the Sacred Family clinic of Cesano Boscone as a result of a conviction for tax fraud, just one of many legal challenges he has faced over the years. Staff at the clinic said his conduct during the visits was impeccable and a far cry from the lavish sex parties dubbed “bunga bunga” that earned him international notoriety and embarrassment while he was in power.

At times he brought chocolates and other gifts to the ailing seniors and at Christmas he even treated the patients to a piano concert — including at least one Edith Piaf song in French.
Supporters of Mr Berlusconi, who still leads the centre-right Forza Italia party he founded two decades ago but remains banned from public office, hope he can use the end of his sentence, assuming it is confirmed by a judge in the coming days, as a springboard for revival of the party and the centre right in general. Some even hope he could get the ban on public office overturned by the European court for human rights.

“There are resurrections in religion, but also in politics,” says Renato Brunetta, a leading Forza Italia lawmaker in Italy’s lower house of parliament. “He’s a sprightly 80 year old who has done everything in life — he has built cities, revolutionised the media, has been prime minister for nine years and participated in countless international summits, so why not?” he adds.

But most in Italian political circles believe this would be impossible, as well as undesirable. Since Mr Berlusconi was forced to resign as prime minister at the height of the eurozone debt crisis in November 2011, support for Forza Italia has nearly halved, from 25 per cent to 13 per cent, according to an average of polls produced by Termometro Politico. Key allies are threatening to split or have already defected. And Mr Berlusconi is not only far less popular than Matteo Renzi, the 40-year-old former mayor of Florence who is the current centre-left prime minister, but he appeals to fewer Italians than Matteo Salvini, the 42-year-old head of the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Northern League, which is trying to overtake Forza Italia as the main rightwing opposition party.

“Berlusconi is an elderly man with no new ideas and politically he is in irreversible decline,” says Gianfranco Pasquino, a professor of political science at the School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna. “His party is in disarray and he has been overshadowed by the two Matteo’s — Renzi and Salvini,” he adds.
That is not to say that Mr Berlusconi lost all political influence in recent years. Mr Renzi, for instance, has maintained a very close relationship with him in order to secure the passage of key political reforms, such as changes to the electoral and legislative process, designed to streamline the Italian political system. But that relationship has frayed recently and Mr Berlusconi announced just this week that he would oppose some of the measures backed by Mr Renzi he previously supported, calling the ruling centre-left Democratic party “arrogant and domineering”.

Meanwhile, reminders of Mr Berlusconi’s judicial travails continue to flare up. On Tuesday, Italy’s highest court is expected to hold the key hearing in the case of Karima “Ruby” El Mahroug, in which the former prime minister was accused of paying for sex with the underage Moroccan nightclub dancer and then hiding the affair. Mr Berlusconi was initially convicted to a seven-year prison term, but cleared last year on appeal.

And just last week, intercepted phone calls from six years ago were released in which Mr Berlusconi was discussing his love interests, including “two little girls, a journalist and a Brazilian, 21 years old”, with a businessman from Bari who was considered his fixer for the escorts invited to his sex parties.

Forza Italia supporters say that these recordings are part of a judicial witch-hunt against Mr Berlusconi that contributed to his downfall along with an international plot led by Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, French president at the time of his ousting in 2011.

They say now that he is unshackled from the tax fraud conviction, he will be free to campaign as aggressively as he can in upcoming regional elections in Veneto in the north and Campania in the south on a platform of much deeper conservative economic and fiscal reforms, including a flat tax, and disenchantment with the economic and foreign policies pursued by Mr Renzi. But critics say centre-right candidates in those regions may not even want Mr Berlusconi around too much given his fall from grace.

And the bigger problem for Mr Berlusconi is that he has failed to identify a successor who could take on his mantle and unify a credible opposition to Mr Renzi — a lack of planning for the new generation that many see as the obstacle to any renaissance of the centre-right in Italy. “I am sure that moment will come, maybe in 200 years, but it’s not on the agenda now,” jokes Mr Brunetta. “First, he wants to recover his liberty and his dignity,” he adds.


James Politi

“Silvio Berlusconi faithful hope for political revival”
Ft.com
March 10, 2015

Tags: