Irrepressible Berlusconi makes one last bid for brass ring in Italy

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ROME | Only Silvio Berlusconi — the billionaire media tycoon whose four tumultuous terms as Italy’s prime minister were marred by allegations of corruption, mob links, and the occasional “bunga bunga” sex party — could turn Italy’s normally boring presidential elections into a global news story.

Debate on a new president, a mostly ceremonial office with limited constitutional powers, is set to begin Monday. Mr. Berlusconi‘s decision to throw his hat in the ring has already upended the usual course of Italian politics.

Normally, these affairs are low-key, long-winded, and easy to ignore: Members of Italy’s parliament pluck a high-integrity, elderly statesman out of retirement and elect him to a seven-year term as president. In that role, he attends state funerals and coronations and receives foreign dignitaries. The post is not entirely irrelevant politically — on occasion, the president gives his stamp of approval to new Cabinet ministers or calls a national referendum.

For the 85-year-old Mr. Berlusconi, the job could also be a kind of palate cleanser: a job that would consign controversies from the past to the history books and allow him to write a new capstone chapter to an improbable political career. 

Mr. Berlusconi has thrown the weight of his media empire and his political connections behind what by any count is a long-shot bid. Last week, Il Giornale, the Milan newspaper Mr. Berlusconi owns, ran a full-page ad listing his accomplishments — among them, “overseeing the end of the Cold War” — and his television networks have run dozens of favorable news segments. He has reportedly spent hours on the phone calling in favors from lawmakers and has threatened to pull his political party’s support for the coalition government if he is not selected for the job. 

A sharp break for the colorless and largely forgettable Italian prime ministers of the past, Mr. Berlusconi has confounded his critics many times. But according to the vast majority of political observers, there are many reasons that a Berlusconi presidency should not — and will not — happen. 

“Let’s say it wouldn’t be a great image for our country,” said Italian senator and activist Emma Bonino. Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister, called Mr. Berlusconi’s candidacy a “fabrication” invented by mogul’s allies.

The president will be chosen by secret balloting by more than 1,000 “grand electors,” including lawmakers and select regional delegates, starting Jan. 24. Several rounds of voting are expected before choosing a successor to current President Sergio Mattarella, whose term ends Feb. 3.

Despite the doubters, Mr. Berlusconi has launched the most visible campaign for the job and can count on some support from his Forza Italia party and some other conservative factions in the national legislature.

Protesters opposing the notion of Mr. Berlusconi as president in Rome before the holidays held up signs saying that as prime minister Mr. Berlusconi made Italy a “laughingstock” and stating that the Quirinale Palace, the president’s residence, was no place for the famous “bunga bunga” parties long associated with Mr. Berlusconi’s carefully curated roguish personality.

But the biggest reason Mr. Berlusconi won’t become Italy’s 13th postwar president, according to political scientist and editorial writer Roberto D’Alimonte, is the simplest of all. 

“The calculus is simple: He just doesn’t have anywhere close to the number of votes he needs in parliament,” Mr. D’Alimonte said in an interview. “Mark my words: There is no chance Italy’s next president will be Silvio Berlusconi.”

Mr. D’Alimonte, who teaches at Rome’s Luiss University, said there are many reasons the upcoming elections are important. But he says Mr. Berlusconi‘s candidacy isn’t one of them.

“Italy, Europe and the financial markets are all in a fragile state” amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, Mr. D’Alimonte said. “It’s important that Italy’s government remains stable and reliable. That’s why the stakes are so high for this election.”

There are plenty of other plausible (if less colorful) candidates for the job besides Mr. Berlusconi. Among the names appearing in the Italian media in recent weeks are Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister, and Paolo Gentiloni, another former prime minister now serving as a European Commissioner for Economy. Elisabetta Casellati, the president of the Italian Senate, is another potential candidate for the job, which has never been held by a woman.

But the odds-on favorite is Mario Draghi, Italy’s current prime minister. Mr. Draghi is a former president of the European Central Bank who was credited with saving the euro currency during the 2011-2012 financial crisis.

Since taking over as Italy’s head of government last year, Mr. Draghi can take the credit for organizing one of Europe’s most aggressive coronavirus vaccination campaigns, while his personal prestige has helped assuage investor fears, keeping the government’s borrowing costs low.

Why would the 74-year-old Mr. Draghi trade in the prime minister’s sash for the lower-profile and less powerful president’s job? One factor would be Italy’s fractured political environment. As president, Mr. Draghi could remain influential while floating above the fray for a full seven-year term.

“The president can’t make policy the way the prime minister can, but with the right figure in the prime minister’s office the president can wield a great deal of power,” Mr. D’Alimonte said. “I think there is strong support among political and private sector leaders for Draghi to become president, and I don’t think Draghi will take the job unless there’s an agreement in place ahead of time for him to have a prime minister he’ll be able to work with.”





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