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4 August 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 2:39pm

How Silvio Berlusconi became Italy’s kingmaker

The former prime minister now holds the keys to a new pro-European government in Rome.  

By David Broder

This summer just isn’t the same. In the build-up to the long August break, Italy’s big cities normally start to empty — of locals, at least. But in 2020, locals are still hanging around while the foreign tourists are not. After 35,000 deaths and a two-month economic shutdown, Italians are staying at home, or at least, avoiding the usual crowded shorelines.

The seaside exodus is usually the backdrop for what Italians call “beach governments” — the eclectic coalitions that form to push through parliamentary business in summer. This August, it’s unlikely we’ll get a change of government. But with Italy’s public finances under intense pressure, a remarkable realignment is in the making. 

Key to this upheaval is that most familiar face, Silvio Berlusconi. Eight general elections since the four-time former prime minister first decided to “enter the field,” Italian media are again heralding him as the great kingmaker — even though his centre-right Forza Italia party is averaging just 7.5 per cent in polls. With ructions within the governing majority, today’s premier Giuseppe Conte increasingly looks to Berlusconi to ease the implementation of European Recovery Fund support.

This was obvious on 21 July, as the European Parliament agreed on a bailout agreement which Conte had claimed as a victory. The centre-left Democrats voted through the whole package, but the eclectic Five Star Movement, which also backs Conte’s government, opposed the text on lending through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which it fears will impose austerity conditions on Italy in exchange for funds. Yet while the hard-right parties Lega and Fratelli d’Italia also opposed ESM, Berlusconi’s MEPs voted together with the Democrats to back the package agreed by Conte.

See also: Italy in the wake of coronavirus

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The same dynamic threatened to play out as a related €25 billion budget adjustment went to the Italian Senate on 29 July  — a test of Conte’s wafer-thin majority. Ultimately, the right-wing parties collectively abstained, and the text’s implicit, rather than direct, reference to borrowing through ESM appeased Five Star. Yet the Forza Italia leader in the lower house, Renato Brunetta, said that his party would back the government if its majority were in doubt, comparing its role to that of “blood donors.”

Berlusconi’s right-hand man, Brunetta is the main link between the government and Forza Italia: last week, Conte keenly welcomed his proposal of a parliamentary commission to oversee the European Recovery Fund. In a sign of his burgeoning relations with the government, Brunetta was widely touted as one of its two presidents — a proposal sunk only after angry Five Star objections.

A New Majority?

Some figures in the Democrats, amplified by leading daily la Repubblica, are clearly angling for a turn toward Berlusconi. Last month, Democratic grandee Romano Prodi (prime minister in 1996-98, preparing euro entry, and in 2006-8), made a string of interventions suggesting pro-Europeans should bury the hatchet. At the Repubblica delle Idee event in Bologna on 8 July, a reporter asked Prodi if the ESM debate was preparing the way for Berlusconi’s entry into the government; the tycoon’s old rival replied this was “no longer a taboo,” quipping “old age brings wisdom.”

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Prodi did not directly call on Berlusconi to enter the government — last week suggesting Forza Italia could be a responsible opposition, joining the majority in key votes. Yet with Conte’s administration faced with the dramatic social crisis triggered by COVID-19 — and with no reliable upper-house majority—such professions of goodwill are giving way to a more hard-headed collaboration between the Democrats and Forza Italia.

Conte’s lack of a stable base especially owes to the crisis in Five Star, which, though holding a third of seats in parliament, is now polling just 16 percent — half its 2018 general election score. In January, foreign minister Luigi di Maio resigned as its leader on the eve of woeful regional election results, and his acting successor Vito Crimi is a lame duck. Eurosceptic elements of Five Star accuse Crimi of waving through the bailout measures on 29 July without noticing its implicit references to ESM, a mechanism long opposed by Five Star.

Conte will likely avoid testing whether there is a parliamentary majority for ESM until after regional elections expected next month in Veneto, Liguria, Tuscany, Marche, Campania and Puglia. Yet while there are signs of a hardening Eurosceptic minority in Five Star— catalysed by expelled senator Gianluigi Paragone’s creation of an Italexit party — the majority has continued its shift toward the pro-European centre. The affable law professor Conte is widely touted to lead Five Star into the next general election, despite having never been a member.

Right-Wing Coalition

Five Star has always been hostile to Forza Italia — and after its success in the 2018 election, both sides rejected coalition talks. Yet Berlusconi has in recent days expressed strong admiration for Conte’s competent leadership, with his Il Giornale newspaper presenting the prime minister’s deal in Brussels as a triumph. Conte, perhaps backed by parts of Five Star, appears as a necessary element in any new coalition built around the Democrats and Forza Italia, who do not have enough seats to form a majority.

Brunetta rejects the charge that Forza Italia is splitting the centre-right — the Lega party did that, he insists, when it joined with Five Star in government in June 2018, and in any case the right-wing parties will stand together in September’s regional contests. Yet the Lega is clearly losing its claim to lead that right-wing bloc, and recent days have added to its woes, with a fraud investigation against Lombardy governor Attilio Fontana as well as illegal detention charges against its leader Matteo Salvini for blocking migrant boats in his time as interior minister. 

See also: Attending a gathering of ultra conservatives in Rome

After the Lega’s electoral breakthrough in 2018, when it beat Forza Italia for the first time, it used its platform to eat up much of Berlusconi’s own base, especially in central-southern Italy. Yet since his botched bid to force early elections in August 2019, Salvini has haemorrhaged support to Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. The main descendent of Italy’s historic neo-fascist movement, Meloni’s party is at pains to assert its “moderate conservative” credentials and has adopted a less harsh rhetoric against Conte’s government and Brussels than Salvini; it is now the main rising force in Italian politics.

Berlusconi’s centrist turn isn’t so new: he backed grand-coalition and technical governments throughout the early 2010s. This time around, any centrist pact would have to confront the fact that the Democrats and Forza Italia hold only a third of the seats in parliament. Five Star and the Lega are in troubled waters, and Conte’s star still on the rise. But faced with a ten per cent slump in GDP, mass job losses and no plan to restructure a 2.5 trillion euro public debt, the last thing we should expect is a new era of stability.

David Broder is the author of First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy

See also: Italy joins France in recession