The last thing Italy needs
Silvio Berlusconi will probably run for prime minister for a seventh time
Jul 21st 2012 | ROME | from the print edition
FEW things could be worse for Italy’s credibility (and creditworthiness) than for investors to spend the next nine months wondering if Silvio Berlusconi will return as prime minister. But that is increasingly likely.
Since late June, he has been teasing the public and media with increasingly blatant hints that he intends to be his party’s candidate at the next general election, to be held by the spring of 2013. He has still not said so publicly. But in an interview on July 14th he appeared to treat it as fact, saying he “would have preferred to have made the announcement later”.
The day before, his doctor said the 75 year-old billionaire was fit for the fray, though adding that Mr Berlusconi had gone on a diet to shed eight kilos. It then emerged the former prime minister was to hold a behind-closed-doors meeting with an international group of liberal economists. His plan, said aides, was to relaunch his party, the Freedom People (PdL), on the basis of the free-market principles he espoused when he first entered office in 1994, but which he signally failed to apply in the nine subsequent years when he governed Italy.
In another sign that Mr Berlusconi is aiming for a new start, the PdL’s general secretary, Angelino Alfano, said he thought Nicole Minetti, an embarrassing reminder of the former prime minister’s recent past, should resign as a regional councillor in Lombardy. Ms Minetti, a former showgirl, is on trial for allegedly supplying prostitutes for so-called bunga-bunga parties at Mr Berlusconi’s mansion near Milan. Her co-defendants have already conveniently disappeared from public life. One, a television newscaster, was sacked from Mr Berlusconi’s network. The other, a show-business agent, is in jail charged with bankruptcy offences.
If nothing else, recent events have shown that the media tycoon still has a sublime ability to draw attention to himself. By the time Ms Minetti, who had fled to Paris, reappeared in a blaze of photographers’ flashes, a nation that had spent months fretting over sovereign bond yields was once again discussing Mr Berlusconi, his intentions and his shapely lady friends.
But does this mean that, as in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, he can return from political near-death? In the eight months since he left office, naming Mr Alfano as the PdL’s prime-ministerial candidate, his party’s popularity has plunged. Its latest poll ratings were little better than those of the maverick Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, a blogger and comedian.
There are three possible reasons. One is that the PdL is paying the price for its parliamentary support for Mario Monti’s technocratic government and the government’s EU-mandated austerity measures, which have hit many people very hard. But the centre-left Democratic Party has also backed Mr Monti and not suffered to anything like the same extent.
A second theory is that the PdL is lost without its founder. But it can be equally well argued that it is languishing because Mr Berlusconi has never really taken a back seat and allowed Mr Alfano to enhance his standing with the electorate.
A third possible reason for the PdL’s plight, which Mr Berlusconi is doubtless loath to consider, is that a growing number of Italians realise that the eight years between 2001 and 2011 when he was in power were a disaster for their country’s economy. He introduced few structural reforms and, largely as a result, Italy’s economic growth was negligible.
In a poll released on July 9th by Termometro Politico, a website, 72% of those questioned said they would never vote for Mr Berlusconi again. The poll also suggested that the allegations regarding his private life had ravaged a core element of his traditional constituency. It found that 53% of the women who voted for him in the latest general election, in 2008, said they would not do so again.
Mr Berlusconi, then, is setting off on the comeback trail from a lower and more unpromising point than ever before. But his resources are virtually boundless, his communication is outstanding—and he has a strong card to play if he chooses. Italians are inevitably writhing under Mr Monti’s tax increases and spending cuts. A promise to reverse the present government’s policies could also reverse the PdL’s fortunes in the polls. However alarming the spectre of his return, Mr Berlusconi’s chances should not be written off just yet.