politics

Italy’s embattled Berlusconi eyes the presidency, his biggest prize yet

Italy’s embattled Berlusconi eyes the presidency, his biggest prize yet

Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time former Italian prime minister, has been convicted of tax fraud, is currently facing charges in several court cases and has stood trial more than 70 times, including for bribing politicians. Now the 85-year-old wants to be Italy’s next president. Mr. Berlusconi’s political power has faded in recent years as a wave of younger antiestablishment and populist leaders swept through Italy. His Forza Italia party is polling well below 10%. He continues to be dogged by judicial problems and has struggled with health problems, including a serious bout of Covid-19. But Mr. Berlusconi has made the political comeback an art form and now he is trying to pull off one that on first blush looks impossible for one of the most polarizing figures in modern Italian politics. He has defied the political odds over the years, and Italy’s system for voting for president—a secret ballot among more than 1,000 parliamentarians and regional politicians—has led to big surprises in the past. In 1992, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who got six votes in the first round and never more than 30 votes in the first 15 rounds, emerged as a compromise candidate and received almost 700 votes in the 16th round. “I’m skeptical Berlusconi can pull this off, but it is very difficult to guess with him because he defies all predictions, said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey in the U.K. who specializes in right-wing populism in Europe and Italian politics. To mount a successful run for a seven-year term as president, Mr. Berlusconi must ensure nobody is elected in the first three rounds of voting when candidates are selected by two-thirds of eligible electors. For Mr. Berlusconi, an early-round victory is highly unlikely because it would require the support of a large slice of center-left politicians who have vowed to oppose him. Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, is the only person pundits believe might be elected in the first three rounds. In less than a year in office, the former president of the European Central Bank has set long overdue reforms in motion, some of which are necessary for Italy to receive the almost 200 billion euros, equivalent to around $227 billion, in European Union funds earmarked to help the country bounce back from the pandemic. Though Mr. Draghi commands a large parliamentary majority, it isn’t clear he would enjoy the same support in the vote for the presidency. Last month, Mr. Draghi said the government could continue without him as prime minister and that he is “a grandfather at the service of the institutions, which was widely interpreted as a declaration of interest in becoming president. Traditionally, presidential hopefuls don’t openly declare that they seek the office. Mr. Draghi declined to comment. From the fourth round, a simple majority suffices to elect a new president, opening a possible path for Mr. Berlusconi, while also easing the road for Mr. Draghi if he hasn’t already won the vote. If Mr. Berlusconi convinces all the electors aligned with Forza Italia and the other center-right parties to choose him, he would still need to rustle up about 50 votes and avoid center-right defections. Mr. Berlusconi, through a representative, declined to comment. When Mr. Berlusconi entered politics in 1994, he was already well known to Italians as the owner of soccer team AC Milan. He has since sold the team, but the perpetually tanned magnate’s diverse business holdings still include Italy’s three main commercial-television networks. That has opened him up to accusations that he had a conflict of interest that made him unfit for office, something he has always brushed off. “Having all those media assets in the family while he was prime minister was already difficult on many levels, but for the president to have those interests would be beyond the limit of acceptability, said Paolo Natale, a professor of politics at the University of Milan. While Mr. Berlusconi’s allies have said he is their candidate if he wants the presidency, the secret vote makes it easy for electors to defy party orders. The leaders of the two largest center-right parties—Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and the League’s Matteo Salvini—have said that they would support Mr. Berlusconi. However, there are tensions among the three parties that could lead some members of Brothers of Italy or the League to not vote for the former premier. Brothers of Italy has evolved into a nativist far-right party focused on immigration and cultural identity, but it traces its roots to a neo-fascist movement born in the wake of World War II. The League has flirted with anti-EU policies that spooked financial markets and political leaders on the continent. A spokesman for the League affirmed Mr. Salvini’s support for Mr. Berlusconi if the former premier decides to run for the presidency. A spokeswoman for Ms. Meloni declined to comment. The president has a largely ceremonial role in the Italian political system, but can sometimes wield real power. The president picks the prime minister—who must then cobble together a parliamentary majority—and can block ministers from being appointed. The outgoing president, Sergio Mattarella, played a pivotal role several times in recent years, including in 2018, at the height of Italy’s populist wave, when he blocked the appointment of an economy minister who had suggested Italy should ditch the euro as its currency. Mr. Berlusconi met with Ms. Meloni, Mr. Salvini and other center-right leaders last month at his recently acquired villa on the Appian Way on the outskirts of Rome to rally support. The former prime minister wants to make a run at the presidency, but will only decide in mid-January whether he will push his candidacy, according to an adviser. The first round of voting is expected around Jan. 24. Italy is setting Covid-19 infection records almost daily and the pandemic could potentially make Mr. Berlusconi’s path to victory harder because all voters must be present in parliament, meaning electors in quarantine won’t be allowed to vote. The quorum needed to win stays the same. It would be unprecedented to have a president with Mr. Berlusconi’s legal baggage. Among his many cases, a court convicted him of bribing a senator with €3 million to switch political alliances. The senator admitted to the scheme. Because of Italy’s slow judicial system and stalling tactics employed by Mr. Berlusconi’s lawyers, the statute of limitations expired before the appeal process ran its course, resulting in the conviction’s cancellation. “However the race for the presidency goes, this won’t be the political end of Berlusconi, said Prof. Albertazzi. “The end will come when Berlusconi is underground. This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text Download.

politics 2022-01-03 Livemint