How Will His Twenty-Year Political Story End? Mr. Berlusconi Searches for an Exit

It is not easy to write about European, specifically Italian, political dysfunctionalism as an American who lives and works in Washington D.C. and is deeply embarrassed by America’s own display of political dysfunctionalism. But, as the world’s headlines have focused this week on the U.S. government’s shutdown, another political figure, former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, attempted to shut down the Italian government.

Under the guise of contesting a proposed tax increase, last week Mr. Berlusconi demanded that the five ministers from his People of Freedom Party (PDL) withdraw from the Italian coalition government led by Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta. 

This surprise move had nothing to do with taxes but rather an upcoming vote in the Italian Senate to ban Berlusconi from parliament following his conviction on tax fraud, a move now more likely to happen after today’s Senate committee vote to strip him of his seat, the full vote to expel him coming in the middle of October. 

And then on the cusp of an open rebellion within his own party led by his handpicked deputy, Berlusconi was forced to back a vote of confidence after confidently stating a day or two before that he would “put an end to the Letta government.” 

Which brings us to the question of how one gracefully leaves the domestic and international political arena after occupying an oversized role (some have argued “not normal” role) in Italian political life for over two decades? 

Berlusconi does know one thing:  he will not allow his political story to end in house arrest, stripped of his parliamentary position, and abandoned by the party he personally founded and financially underwrote.  

So, how will Silvio’s political era conclude? 

The fragile nature of the current Italian coalition government and the very difficult economic circumstances Italy finds itself mired in seemingly provides Berlusconi with many political opportunities.  But having learned in the most publicly humiliating way, Berlusconi now knows he will not be able to remove his ministers and party from the coalition on his personal whim.  His People of Freedom Party(PDL) is no longer willing to blindly follow his lead. 

Following the inconclusive February elections and the divisions within the center-left Democratic Party (PD), Berlusconi appeared poised to benefit from early elections.  However, in the proceeding five months, a PDL victory seems less certain.  In fact, current polls show PD maintaining a consistent lead over PDL (PD- 28% to PDL-26.1%).

It is impossible to follow Silvio’s political script because he simply does not yet know how to end his own political story in a way that will leave his legacy – albeit controversial – intact, while preserving his vast media and financial empire.  But the ever-mercurial Berlusconi will ensure there are future twists and turns to Italy’s political plot. The question is whether or not his priority will be to ensure his political survival today or secure his future legacy tomorrow. 

Berlusconi will do everything he can do to delay the vote by the upper house of the parliament to strip him of his seat and immunity.  Now that he failed to bring down the government, it is now nearly impossible for him to stop this action from being taken, anticipated before the end of October.

Berlusconi could take matters into his own hands and resign before the Senate votes.  He could quit PDL and lead his recently reconstituted Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, leaving PDL to accept the blame for future unpopular government measures.  Like Beppe Grillo, leader of the Italian populist Five-Star Movement and also a convicted felon, Berlusconi could lead this new party but choose never to sit in parliament.  Observing Grillo’s dictatorial party leadership style over the past few months and the Movement’s declining poll numbers, Berlusconi may wish not to emulate Mr. Grillo completely.

What would a Berlusconi exit mean for the stability and durability of the Letta government?  In the short-run, PDL without Berlusconi may temporarily stabilize the current coalition but a PDL without Berlusconi would be substantially weakened which would further weaken the coalition. Outside of government and using his media empire, an unleashed and hyper-populist Berlusconi could hinder the government’s efforts to continue its economic reforms.  At age 77, could Berlusconi once again engineer another political comeback?

This question is posed with great caution:  many political epitaphs have been written about the political demise of Silvio Berlusconi only to see him rise from the ashes - as he did from his forced resignation 2011 to his party capturing a whopping 29.1% of the vote in the February elections, thereby securing a strong voice in a fragile coalition government.

As we wait for Berlusconi’s next political move just as we wait for Washington’s unfolding drama of political gridlock, we do know one thing is certain:  important structural and economic reforms and an inviting investment climate based on political certainty are once again postponed – on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Heather A. Conley is Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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