Berlusconi Emerges Stronger from Italian Left’s Turmoil

With the left in turmoil, Italy’s scandal ridden former premier suddenly seems reliable.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 16, 2010
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 16, 2010 (The Council of the European Union/Mario Salerno)

Italy’s four time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi did not return to government on Monday when his deputies supported Enrico Letta’s administration in a confidence vote. Yet the septuagenarian right-wing leader, who was forced to resign almost a year and a half ago when his country seemed to teeter on the brink of sovereign default, has emerged a clear winner from eight weeks of political turmoil.

Berlusconi staged an impressive comeback ahead of February’s legislative elections when the left threw away a 15 percentage point lead in opinion polls and his Il Popolo della Libertà even won a plurality of the seats in the Senate.

The social democrats still won a majority in the lower chamber, however, and resisted Berlusconi’s calls to form a “grand coalition,” even if they had no alternative. Centrist parties didn’t have the numbers to give the left an upper house majority while former comic Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which entered parliament with 25 percent support, rejected coalition politics altogether.

The left acquiesced last week after its prime ministerial candidate Pier Luigi Bersani had resigned in disgrace. Coached by President Giorgio Napolitano, who agreed to serve a second term when the main parties were unable to compromise on a replacement candidate, Bersani’s successor Letta initiated talks to form a centrist government.

Berlusconi, who previously suggested he might return as economy minister, did not demand a cabinet seat which would have outraged many left-wing parliamentarians. Instead, his right hand, party secretary Angelino Alfano, was nominated to become interior minister and deputy premier.

He also resisted calls from party hardliners like economy spokesman Renato Brunetta to demand the certain repeal of an unpopular housing tax introduced by the previous government or call new elections.

Berlusconi vowed the levy’s repeal, which would blow an €8 billion hole in this year’s budget, during the election campaign. Letta suggested on Monday that the government would suspend its implementation and consider alternatives but said nothing about paying back taxes already paid, another promise Berlusconi made.

The conservative leader likely realizes that even if his poll numbers have continued to improve since February, reelections in the short term could produce another hung parliament but put him in charge of forming the next government, an attempt that cost Bersani his political career.

Letta is expected to draft electoral reforms that should reduce the chances of one party winning control of the lower chamber of parliament and another taking control of the Senate.

What is more, the former prime minister and media tycoon, who is appealing a one year prison sentence for abuse of office, seems intent on projecting an image of statesmanship and restraint, possibly to claim the presidency once Napolitano resigns.

The octogenarian Napolitano is unlikely to serve out another full, seven year term.

If Berlusconi has been able to improve his image, it is in part because the left succumbed to infighting in the election’s wake, making him seem reasonable and trustworthy by contrast.

Bersani was unable to get the whole of his party to support two presidential candidates before Napolitano’s reelection. Some openly criticized his inability to lure the Five Star Movement into an alliance. Others were angered by his outreach to Berlusconi. Both overtures failed.

Lombardy’s Giuseppe Civati was the party’s only lawmaker who didn’t back Letta’s government on Monday but many more are dissatisfied with the coalition.

The socialist and Green party Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, which backed Bersani in February’s election, also voted against Letta after it announced its intention to “start a new path” and “rebuild the fabric of the left.”

Former communists and young progressives within the Partito Democratico might join such a “new path” or the Five Star Movement with which they sympathize. Pro-European and socially liberal members, like Letta and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, likely a future candidate for the premiership, seek to draw voters from the center instead and support market reforms.

Berlusconi, who has long portrayed his opposition as one of unruly radicals, was quick to exploit the left’s struggles on Monday when, in a television interview, he advised it to “face criticism in relation to its identification with the communist ideology” and expressed his hope that it will reinvent itself as “a party like those of Europe’s social democrats.”

It is hard to believe he truly hopes so. While the left is divided against itself, Berlusconi seems to many Italians the safer choice.