The political rehabilitation of Silvio Berlusconi: Italy’s blessing or unceasing curse?

As Italian voters prepare to go to the polls on 4 March, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s controversial former prime minister, is making a stunning comeback on the country’s political scene.

Following the fall of his cabinet in 2011 and a conviction for tax fraud in 2013 (which banned him from public office for six years), Berlusconi stepped away from the spotlight of Italian politics.

However, his 2014 electoral and constitutional reform deal with Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister and current leader of the centre-left Democratic Party kept the door open for continued political influence. In the last few months, Berlusconi has kicked that door wide open.

The media magnate has restyled his political image in the shape of Italy’s nonno (‘grandfather’), as a recent New York Times article pointed out.

Berlusconi is now seen by many as an elder statesman and a moderate leader who is able to keep populists in check at home and even in Europe.

The warm welcome that Jean Claude-Juncker and the European People’s Party afforded the Forza Italia (Forward Italy) leader during his recent visit in Brussels further proves just how successful this rebranding operation has been.

In addition, his appeal against his public office ban to the European Court of Human Rights could open new scenarios, should the court rule in Berlusconi’s favour.

As it was in 1994, so it is in 2018

The current Italian political climate recalls, in some way, the situation facing the country in 1994 when Berlusconi first became prime minister. At the time, the prospect of a cabinet led by the post-communist party, the Left Democrats was regarded with deep concern by the moderate, conservative and Catholic part of the Italian electorate.

In 1994 Berlusconi’s centre-right party succeeded, thanks in part to his Mediaset media empire, in seizing the political void left by the disintegration of the longest-ruling party in the Italy’s history - the Christian Democrats - in the wake of a massive corruption scandal.

That same large section of the electorate is still influential today and is looking on with concern at the popularity of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), mainly due to its ostensibly radical rhetoric and its inexperience at a national level, as well as questions surrounding its local record in Turin and Rome.

It is also important to point out the generational divide when it comes to M5S: the party is extremely popular amongst young Italians aged 18-34, who are, in large numbers, fed up with the mainstream parties; however, M5S does not attract the same consensus amongst older voters, who are more likely to back the Democratic Party, Forza Italia and other centre-right parties.

Even though current M5S leader Luigi di Maio has publicly softened the party’s views on Europe (it has previously campaigned to leave the eurozone) and has made efforts in presenting ‘super competent’ candidates for the elections, the party’s anti-Europe credentials and relative inexperience is repeatedly highlighted by its political rivals.

Italy’s future relationship with Europe also represents a big issue for Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) party, given the Eurosceptic views of the party and its virulent anti-migrant stance.

Nevertheless, Berlusconi is seen as the only man who can keep his allies, Lega Nord and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, in check in a centre-right coalition government.

“A phoenix rising from the ashes of Italian politics”

As history tends to repeat itself, in Italy even more so than elsewhere, Berlusconi is poised to become once again the ‘kingmaker’ in the next Italian government.

Berlusconi appears to be the phoenix that repeatedly rises from the ashes of Italian politics. But we mustn’t forget that his position has been enabled by the centre-left opposition, which failed to introduce a serious conflict of interest law when it governed, therefore leaving his media empire untouched. This lack of resistance to his immense power has also allowed Berlusconi, through former prime ministers Massimo D’Alema and Matteo Renzi, to play a central political role in the pursuit of electoral and constitutional reforms.

Berlusconi’s successful political makeover tells us a lot about the Italian public’s conscience and the ease with which people forget the past, however recent.

The passion of a certain segment of the Italian electorate for strongmen is alive and kicking. It is the unpleasant legacy of 20 years of fascist rule in Italy, a page from history that Italians, unlike the Germans, have never truly faced up to.

The increasing popularity of the far-right in Italy as well as the stance of Berlusconi’s current allies, is yet more proof of that.

Discomforting too was Berlusconi’s recent pledge to expel 600,000 undocumented migrants who he described as “a social bomb ready to explode”. He made the comments following the shooting of five African men and one woman by a far-right extremist on 3 February in Macerata, central Italy. Berlusconi’s remarks confirm that he is not a moderate leader, but one that is ready to follow the right-wing winds whenever it is advantageous to him.

Regardless of the election outcome, Berlusconi’s influence on Italian politics, particularly on the future prime minister, is likely to be massive. We can only wait to see what this means for Italy and for the rest of Europe.