On a chilly night in Rome last November, the man with more money and more women than most Italians was ousted as prime minister after nearly two decades of political dominance.
People danced in the streets when Silvio Berlusconi and his political cronies were replaced by a dour technocrat called Mario Monti, who remains at the helm of what could be Europe’s next sinking ship. But if you thought that was the end of the billionaire businessman it may be time to think again.
Silvio Berlusconi is a 75-year-old veteran who has more than once demonstrated his talent for reinvention in the board room, the corridors of power and in the basement of his luxury villa where his notorious “bunga bunga” s-x parties were allegedly held outside Milan.
In the past couple of weeks he has been staging a highly manipulative resurrection of sorts and relishing the role as the particularly discreet Monti heads to Brussels for the European summit.
And in case you missed it, Berlusconi was also cleared in a major fraud trial against his Mediaset broadcast empire on Wednesday when the judge absolved him, his son, Pier Silvio, and 10 others of charges saying the case had timed out under the statute of limitations, one of his favourite laws.
Last weekend Berlusconi, who dominated the country’s political landscape for 17 years and has had three terms as prime minister, re-emerged saying he is once again ready “to take charge” of the country.
Relishing his new role he has also mouthed off a couple of times in the past week questioning whether Italy should abandon the euro. On Tuesday, he even promoted himself as a future finance minister in a government to be led by Angelino Alfano, head of the People of Freedom Party (PdL) that Berlusconi created. He also said Italy was a victim of the “indecision” that was gripping Europe and had to immediately change direction.
Monti has seen his popularity slump from 71% in November to 33%, according to a poll by SWG after introducing a tough austerity package, labour reforms and higher taxes and charges.
And while Berlusconi ruled out withdrawing PdL support for Monti, saying such a “crisis would create consternation”, he has been working hard to resurrect his political profile in recent weeks and his party could still bring down the government and force an election earlier than those planned for 2013.
Il Giornale, the daily newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s family, trumpeted the ex-premier’s return on its front page a week ago and has been quick to reinforce his role at the centre of politics.
He is certain to draw extra confidence from the legal ruling in Rome after he and the others from his Mediaset networks were accused of €10 million in tax fraud in 2004 and 2005.
The PdL is the largest party in parliament and backs Monti along with its slightly smaller centre-left rival, the Democratic Party (PD), which polls say is Italy’s most popular party. But Berlusconi’s party has suffered a dramatic fall in support and the ex-premier has been privately assessing the rise of maverick comedian Beppe Grillo to determine his recipe for success.
Lorenzo Di Sio, an assistant professor at the school of government at Luiss University in Rome, said it would be very difficult for Berlusconi to ever be premier of Italy again. “His success was based on presenting himself as something new,” he said on Wednesday. “After governing the country and his economic management, I would say it would now be very difficult to present himself as something new.”
Research conducted by the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies, a joint project involving experts from Luiss and the University of Florence, has shown a major fall in support for all the major political parties, but especially the PdL. “The PdL is in deep crisis and Berlusconi is aware of this. There are still 30-35% who have a positive judgment of Berlusconi, while only 17% support the PdL,” it reported.
As Italians struggle with higher taxes and rising unemployment in a worsening recession, it does not appear many are concerned about Berlusconi’s legal cases including the ongoing “bunga bunga” trial in Milan in which he is charged with paying for s-x with underage prostitute known as Ruby the Heart Stealer. But there are doubts within Berlusconi’s party. Maurizio Paniz, a PdL MP and ally of the former prime minister, was surprisingly candid when he said Berlusconi was unlikely to be premier in the future.
“He will not be prime minister ever again,” Paniz told Crikey. “During his life he has taken centre stage many times and now he has moved onto another stage as elder statesman of the party. It is clear that he plays a significant and decisive role as leader of the party but he will not be prime minister.”