Though comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement took the Italian political world and European market shares alike for a wild ride this winter, now that the dust has settled, a much more familiar figure stands at the top of the heap: Silvio Berlusconi.
Yes, the three-time prime minister whose center-right coalition rode the same wave of anti-austerity resentment as Five Star to a stronger-than-expected showing in February elections — denying the left’s Pier Luigi Bersani an effective governing majority — is not getting his old job back. But between the unprecedented re-election of Giorgio Napolitano to a second term as president and his selection of Enrico Letta, the new head of Bersani’s divided Democratic Party (PD), as prime minister, Berlusconi has come full circle, leaving disgrace behind in favor of new power. Plagued by sex scandals and criminal charges (including tax fraud), the 76-year-old billionaire media magnate had become something of a joke to the investor class and was written off by pundits confident that voters were tiring of his shenanigans. But Berlusconi thrives with his back to the wall, and he has skillfully maneuvered behind the scenes to shape this outcome, one ideally suited to further reviving his personal political glory — if not Italy’s long-term fiscal stability.
Not only is Berlusconi assured of tremendous sway with the new government — which will serve at the pleasure of his People of Liberty Party, whose votes it needs to remain in charge — but his poll numbers are on the rise, providing a nice edge in day-to-day negotiations over the thorny fiscal issues still confronting lawmakers. Center-left leadership will do everything it can to avoid going back to the polls while still in disarray, something Berlusconi will likely exploit during this grand coalition, a dynamic Bersani was intent on dodging before being cast out of the PD leadership when both his presidential nominees crashed and burned.
Now Berlusconi can look ahead to regaining a real majority if and when he decides to pull the plug on this government and force a snap election. Which he almost certainly will, if his history — it was Berlusconi who showed Mario Monti’s technocrat government the door last December — is any indication. The deciding issue is likely to be his proposed refund of a despised property tax imposed by Monti to bolster government coffers. Centrist and left-wing parties (along with all the media outlets not under his control) have mocked the plan as a cheap campaign ploy, but a spat over the issue could provide Berlusconi the cover he needs to ditch the interim government without appearing completely bereft of principle. He could claim to simply be honoring his mandate, and would enter the election with the wind at his back, in what one must be hesitant to label his final campaign. After all, Berlusconi has overcome so many personal disasters and policy failings that, by now, it should be clear the normal rules of politics do not apply in his case. As he attends the launch of George W. Bush’s presidential library in Texas Thursday, Italian politics will be on hold, awaiting his return.