Silvio Berlusconi courts parliamentarians in Italy presidential bid

The Guardian - Tue Jan 18 14:08

The one thing missing from the list of 22 personality traits and accomplishments flaunted in a full-page newspaper advert entitled “Who is Silvio Berlusconi?” was the former Italian prime minister’s talent for singing. But the one-time cruise ship crooner, one of Italy’s most controversial leaders well known for his myriad legal woes, is hoping his pleasant voice will seduce dozens of parliamentarians into backing his bid to become Italy’s next president.

The secret ballot begins on 24 January, and Berlusconi, 85, has broken from tradition by shamelessly campaigning for the job, a largely ceremonial role with powers to resolve political crises, even without officially throwing his hat into the ring. His charm offensive, which includes telephone canvassing unaffiliated parliamentarians whose votes could secure his victory and jokingly inviting them to his “bunga bunga party”’, is stoking tensions within Italy’s ruling coalition, blocking any meaningful debate on an impartial candidate all parties can agree on and igniting protests among Italians who find the prospect of the scandal-plagued Berlusconi becoming head of state abominable.

For the past week, Vittorio Sgarbi, an MP, art critic and a culture undersecretary in Berlusconi’s second of four governments, has been orchestrating “calls with Berlusconi” to establish whether the billionaire Forza Italia leader can muster enough votes to win. “He told me he had 100 votes more [needed from unaffiliated parliamentarians] and I said, ‘Ok, let’s try and give the votes a face’, and so we started phoning people,” said Sgarbi. “These are people without a party to call home, and so when you get a call from Berlusconi you feel important. We’ve made 50 calls so far, and 15 seemed ready to vote for him. He’s the one doing the talking, not me, and he has a voice like Frank Sinatra. For me, his voice alone can bring in at least another 20 votes.”

Berlusconi speaks to media following a December meeting with centre-right leaders in Rome.
Berlusconi speaks to media following a December meeting with centre-right leaders in Rome. Photograph: Roberto Monaldo/AP

Just over 1,000 “grand electors” – MPs, senators and a smaller number of regional delegates – will cast their ballots in a complex process that is poised to go through several rounds before a successor to Sergio Mattarella, who steps down on 3 February, is elected. The majority required to win diminishes on each round. If Berlusconi officially expresses his candidature in the coming days and can prove he has the extra numbers then his rightwing allies, the League and Brothers of Italy, have promised their parties’ backing. If that promise prevails and all parliamentarians from the rightwing bloc support Berlusconi, then he would need about 80 more votes from the unaffiliated pool to secure the 505 needed for victory in the fourth round.

Berlusconi is doing all he can to augment his public persona as he seeks one final grab at power, mobilising his media empire while hogging the political debate. The attributes highlighted in the advert that ran in his Il Giornale newspaper last week included being “a good and generous person”, a “friend of everyone, enemy of no-one”, and a “self-made man, an example for all Italians”.

He claims to have successfully ended the cold war between Russia and the US, and describes himself as a “hero of liberty” who first entered politics in 1994 to spare Italy from an authoritarian regime. There is no mention of his tax fraud conviction, which saw him ousted from the senate in 2013, his countless legal woes or the fact that he is still being tried for allegedly bribing witnesses in an underage prostitution case connected to his famous “bunga bunga” sex parties. In fact, he is embracing the notoriety of the latter.

There are some absolute pearls in this "Who is Silvio Berlusconi?" page in Il Giornale (owned by Berlusconi)

It's hard to choose a top 3, but here goes... pic.twitter.com/q3OlaFBiHm

— Duncan McDonnell (@duncanmcdonnell) January 13, 2022

“When Sgarbi put me on the phone to Berlusconi, I thought it was a colleague doing an impersonation,” said Cristian Romaniello, a former Five Star Movement deputy now among parliament’s so-called “mixed group”. “He cracked a joke inviting me to the bunga bunga party, and I must admit, I appreciated his humour. I would never vote for him, but while everyone else is being a bit snobby, he is welcoming, one by one, the parliamentarians who are always snubbed.”

Sgarbi said the motivation driving Berlusconi’s campaign is to prove to his detractors that he can do it. “It is a response to all those who have attacked him,” added Sgarbi. “He also maintains that for those doing the electing, they won’t find a better president than him.”

If he becomes president, Berlusconi will gain powers to pick prime ministers who can then go on to attempt form governing majorities, call early elections and approve or scrap laws.

Most analysts believe Berlusconi will struggle to garner enough support to win. His main rival for the seven-year mandate is the current prime minister, Mario Draghi, although many oppose Draghi’s shift to the presidential palace as it would bring his government to an early end, undermining efforts to enact the reforms needed to secure instalments from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, of which Italy is the biggest beneficiary. Berlusconi last week threatened to withdraw Forza Italia from Draghi’s unity coalition if Draghi gets elected.

An anti-Berlusconi protest in Rome.
An anti-Berlusconi protest in Rome. Photograph: Francesco Fotia/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

But the prospect of Berlusconi as head of state is beyond the pale for parliament’s leftwing bloc. “Berlusconi’s candidature is a dead end,” Enrico Letta, leader of the Democratic Party (PD), told TG3 on Sunday. “In the sense that he’s not an institutional figure on which there’ll be unity. Let’s find a name together, we need some super impartial,” Letta urged the rightwing parties.

Sgarbi said Berlusconi had tried to tap some PD parliamentarians for support, but without success.

Meanwhile, an anti-Berlusconi movement, called The Purple People, has been revived to protest against his campaign, while banners reading “No Berlusconi” have appeared on football terraces across the country. “Berlusconi’s name should be removed from the game completely, as he is totally inadequate,” said Gianfranco Mascia, leader of The Purple People. “He has been convicted, is still being tried, and has offended women many times. I get calls from people overseas asking: ‘How is this even happening?’”