In a typically sweltering Italian summer, one of the hottest talking points this August was the return of Italy’s prime political headline-grabber, Silvio Berlusconi. Convicted of tax fraud in 2013, banned from holding public office until at least 2019 – and forever with the spectre of ‘bunga-bunga parties’ debacle hanging over him – the insatiable Berlusconi is back.

The four-term prime minister had seen his power at the pinnacle of Italian politics dramatically reduced following the end of his final term in 2011 due to his brush with the law, although he still remains leader of the centre-right Forza Italia party. Due to quirks in the Italian electoral system that almost always necessitate the formation of electoral coalitions, Silvio Berlusconi might well reemerge once again as a decisive figure in Italian politics.

Silvio Berlusconi straightens his tie
Silvio Berlusconi will assume a pivotal role in the forthcoming legislative elections, despite being legally banned from office. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

A convoluted system

Following his brief hiatus, Berlusconi is once again at the helm of the Forza Italia the party he founded 23 years ago. With parliamentary elections due before May 2018, the party is positioning itself to play a major role in shaping the balance of Italy’s fractured political landscape. Due to the nature of the Italian legislative elections, which are decided by a system of proportional representation, the prospect of a single party obtaining an overall parliamentary majority is close to nil.

To govern, a prime minister must command a majority in both the Senate and the House of Deputies. In a nation that celebrates plurality of parties and interest groups from across the political spectrum, history has demonstrated that this is not an easy feat. Successive Italian governments have frequently been formed from a mélange of often ideologically incoherent factions and if one or more falls out with the overall coalition there is the very real possibility that the entire government collapses. Indeed, Italy has witnessed over 60 governments since the fall of Benito Mussolini in 1945.

Though the electoral system has been widely criticised, most notably by the current President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, reform is doubtful before Italians vote in Spring 2018. The governing Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, or PD), following a disappointing performance in June’s local elections, looks unlikely to muster a sufficient percentage of the vote necessary to decisively rule a coalition government. Matteo Renzi, the party’s leader and former prime minister, voiced his disappointment following the local results admitting on social media that the night “could have gone better.”

This leaves Italian politics wide open, setting the stage for Berlusconi and the centre-right to muscle its way into a coalition which could well govern Italy from next year. “I am the driving force of the centre-Right,” the former prime minister said in the wake of June’s local elections, in which Forza Italia made significant gains. The octogenarian announced his party’s renaissance with trademark flamboyance: “I’m back, and you can see the results.”

Coalition building

Part of the success at the local elections was down to Forza Italia’s capacity to forge alliances with factions that lie further on the Italian right, such as the Lega Nord (Northern League) that advocates strict federalism and the defence of Northern Italian traditions against those of the South. Lega Nord is widely considered a radical member of the Italian right defined by a set of anti-Southern Italian beliefs. During the municipal elections, in order to take several cities from the PD, Berlusconi convinced Lega Nord to team up with Forza Italia to field joint candidates in the regionals – with great success.

It is very unlikely however, that Lega Nord will come close to government in 2018 and the municipal election results must be taken with a pinch of salt. Many pundits pointed to a turnout of just 46% as a contributing factor, as well as the fact that voters are typically less kind to the governing party. The greater threat to Renzi and the PD on a national level remains Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement), a proudly-Eurosceptic, anti-establishment party founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo, who are polling at a level similar to the PD.

The Italian Parliament Building in Rome, Italy
Italy’s parliament is invariably ruled by coalitions. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Though Grillo suffered a similarly torrid experience in the local elections, Movimento 5 Stelle and the PD are the clear heavyweights going into the election. The problem for Mr Renzi is that on principle, Movimento 5 Stelle would refuse to form a coalition leaving neither party with enough of the vote to decisively govern.

As things stand, according to most predicted conclusions of next year’s elections, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia will assume the role of kingmaker. The party is the most ideologically compatible component of a likely coalition with the PD – assuming that Movimento 5 Stelle, polling at a record 32% according to newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, remains in the shadows and refuses to cooperate.

Managing diverse viewpoints

While many of Forza Italia’s ideas would be considered incompatible with those of the centre-left PD, they are vastly preferable to those of the Lega Nord and others further to the right or left.

Silvio Berlusconi is said to be formulating a reinvigorated policy programme for the party, a rallying cry for potential partners in a coalition. Pundits expect it to be comprised of moderate ideas that might include “a drastic simplification of the tax code”, according to Reuters. It could also take the form of a reinvention of the welfare system to aid those most in need – paid for by the proceeds of privatisations and public spending cuts.

As a slightly-tweaked centrist outfit, Forza Italia might well become the most sought-after coalition partner as the election creeps closer and the forming of anticipatory alliances becomes an increasingly pressing issue.

As he revels in this instability, Silvio Berlusconi’s survivor’s instinct speaks volumes to the millions who still back him and validates his unrivalled understanding of the Italian system’s complex balance. In a country without a clear dominant party and an underwhelming government in power, it is easy to see Forza Italia building on their 13% polling between now and May.

Europe holds its breath

Whatever happens in 2018, Europe will be watching with bated breath as many analysts regard Italian political instability as a threat to the improving eurozone. “Our biggest concern in Italy is that we might not get a stable government,” Fitch analyst Ed Parker told Reuters at a conference hosted by the firm in September. While it remains to be seen precisely what Berlusconi has in store – as legally he will not be allowed to take office himself – Forza Italia will nonetheless march on under his guidance.

Italy has a history of potent forces operating outside of office, a role which Berlusconi would undoubtedly embrace. Is 80 the new 40? You’d be a fool to write him off.

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