Why Is Silvio Berlusconi Back (Again)?

The former prime minister has been convicted of tax fraud and tarnished by scandal. He is nevertheless a kingmaker in Italy’s upcoming elections.

Silvio Berlusconi is seen during the television talk show "L'aria che tira" in Rome, Italy, on January 18, 2018. (Remo Casilli / Reuters)

MILAN—Silvio Berlusconi had been talking for nearly two hours straight—a series of long, rambling tangents—when an associate walked onto the stage and placed a piece of paper on the lectern. He’d just gotten a big round of applause for one of his classic lines—“We governed for nine years and we never, ever, ever put our hands in the pockets of Italians!”—when he paused. “They gave me a note that says soon they’ll kick me out because it’s getting late and the theater is booked later,” Berlusconi said. The audience broke out in applause again. There were bottle blondes with fur coats and swollen collagen lips, businessmen in nice suits, and some young people who were born after he’d first come to power in 1994 and had never known a world without him. He was in his element, the spotlight, and showed no sign of letting up.

Italy goes to vote in national elections on March 4, and yes, Berlusconi, the former prime minister, he of the corruption scandals, the so-called “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, the allegations of Mafia ties that he, in fact, discussed (and denied) in his speech in Milan, is in full campaign mode. He is campaigning on behalf of his center-right Forza Italia party, even though a conviction for tax fraud bans him personally from holding any public office. Forza Italia has been in the opposition since Italy’s last national elections in 2013. Since then, there have been three different center-left prime ministers.

I’d gone to Milan to see Berlusconi perform one more time. It’s hard to imagine he’d campaign again after this, but with him, never say never. His show peaked years ago—he stepped down as prime minister in November 2011, at the height of the euro crisis, to save the country from economic collapse, in a maneuver he now likes to say was a “coup d’état” against him—but here he was, on stage, like the star of a Broadway musical now in its umpteenth cast long after its cultural moment had passed.

Berlusconi is 81 now. His face coated in makeup, he looks like he stepped out of a wax museum. These days he dresses like his security detail, in a black shirt under a black suit jacket with wide lapels. His gift for salesman’s one-liners that put the customer at ease is intact—“Luckily I’m still young,” he says often—but his comic timing less so. In the Milan theater on Sunday, he rambled on as older people sometimes do, often repeating himself. He doesn’t do big campaign rallies anymore. Television was always his preferred medium anyway, and in this he was far ahead of the curve. Long before Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, the latter of whom he counts as a personal friend, Berlusconi created a viewership that he transformed into an electorate.

How is it possible that Berlusconi is still on the political stage? Especially when Italy is facing dramatic economic problems—some of which stem from his years in government—and after all the embarrassing “Bunga Bunga” years? I’ll try to keep this simple. He’s still around because Italy doesn’t have a normal center-right; because its center-left, although polling higher than Forza Italia, has imploded into a fratricidal mess and been unable to capitalize on five years of decent government; and because he’s a known quantity in an election dominated by anti-establishment arrivistes like the Five-Star Movement and right-wing anti-immigrant politicians. During the campaign, Berlusconi has referred to himself as “usato sicuro,” or “used but in good condition,” the same term you see in ads for used cars. There’s a sucker born every minute. Although maybe not in Italy, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the West.

Berlusconi is still on the political stage because he is the charismatic leader of a movement that remains the only political expression of the center-right in a country that is leaning ever more rightward. Forza Italia’s potential governing partner is the right-wing League party (formerly the Northern League), led by Matteo Salvini, which has capitalized on the fear of immigrants that’s become a key factor in a nasty campaign.

Berlusconi as politician was born in 1994 from a political void—the collapse in a massive bribery scandal of the Christian Democrats and Socialists who had at that point governed throughout the post-war era—and today he fills another void. “If Berlusconi suddenly decided to retire from politics, the real true center-right, with the exception of Salvini, would not find a political expression. There would be a vacuum,” Sofia Ventura, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna, told me. Berlusconi is still on the scene because of the large number of centrists in Italy who could vote right or left, and who in this election don’t feel at home in the Democratic Party but are not as far right as League voters. Where else can they turn?

But let’s make a few things clear. Berlusconi may be back, but he’s not back back. His Forza Italia is expected to win around 17 percent of the vote, and the League 13 percent, although Italian polls are often unreliable because so many people are undecided or not telling the truth. Even if Forza Italia wins the most seats in a right-wing bloc, Berlusconi can’t be prime minister because of his tax-fraud conviction, but no matter what, he’ll play a decisive role as kingmaker in shaping whatever coalition might emerge. (He’s taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, hoping it will rule that he can run for office again in the future.)

There’s also the possibility that if he gets the numbers for Forza Italia, they could drop their right-wing partners, the League, and form a grand coalition with the center-left Democratic Party, which is running on an opposing ticket with other left-wing parties. Berlusconi criticizes the Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi on the campaign trail—the left ruined the country and let in too many immigrants; Renzi governs by clicks and tweets are constant refrains—but he seems to have more fellow-feeling with Renzi than with Salvini, the leader of his party’s ostensible coalition partner, the League. A gossip magazine owned by a Berlusconi family company once ran a photo of the 44-year-old Salvini’s girlfriend kissing another man. In Italy’s political culture, the term for a sotto voce agreement, in which two rival politicians have a tacit agreement to drop their partners and team up after elections, is an “inciucio” (pronounced In-CHEW-CHO), which comes from Neapolitan dialect and implies a secret affair. “Berlusconi and Renzi are like two lovers looking to hide in the dark,” Ezio Mauro, a columnist for and former editor of La Repubblica, Italy’s leading center-left daily, which was an opposition paper when Berlusconi was in power, told me.

Nor do League supporters seem particularly enamored of Berlusconi. “Parliament is basically a rest home, and they should have a special wing for him,” Raika Marcazzan, a 39-year-old League candidate for Parliament from Verona, told me when I spoke to her at a League rally in Milan this weekend. She had a Venetian flag draped over her shoulders. (The League, which started out as a separatist party in a few regions in Northern Italy, may have shed its separatist aspirations under Salvini, but its base in the Veneto and Lombardy hasn’t.)

One of the warmup acts for Berlusconi’s speech on Sunday was Attilio Fontana, a League candidate for the presidency of the Lombardy region who last month had said Italy’s “white race” needed defending “as an ethnic reality,” before backing down and saying the comment had been “a slip of the tongue.” Salvini, the leader of the League, had barely discouraged Fontana’s remarks. Berlusconi had later called them “unfortunate.” And here Berlusconi was warmly greeting Fontana on stage in Milan, not long after Fontana had told the crowd, “It feels like the right of the good old days.”

But was it the right of the good old days, or the Berlusconi of the good old days? Berlusconi has always been more of an opportunist than an ideologue, with an excellent sense of the political mood. The prevailing winds in Italy today are blowing rightward, and so is Berlusconi. In his Milan speech, he bemoaned that 630,000 “clandestini,” or illegal immigrants, had arrived in Italy since 2014, “and many of them,” he said, “have no means and no way to eat or to make a living besides delinquency.” On his watch, Italy had struck an accord with Libya in 2008 in part to prevent such migration, but that had unraveled with the Arab Spring. The audience applauded. “In Italy, a woman is killed every three days,” he said. “In our platform, we have a code for the defense of women.” He didn’t say it, but the implied message was clear, and it’s one the League has been delivering outright: Immigrants are coming and attacking our women. Statistics show that most women in Italy are killed in domestic disputes by people they know, but the League has seized on a gruesome murder by a Nigerian immigrant and made it a campaign issue.

Mostly, Berlusconi kept trotting out the old saws. As if it were 1994 and he were running for office for the first time. As if he’d never been ousted from power in 2011. He solved the garbage crisis in Naples in 2008. After Russian troops entered Georgia the same year, he mediated between Russia and Europe to prevent a war. As in every single prior campaign, he gave a special shout out to mothers—talking about his own mamma—again getting applause. And he underscored just how implausible and self-contradictory he has always been as a politician. (In this campaign, he’s not alone in that.) He praised the European Union and the fact that it emerged from the Second World War, and said he remembered the bombs falling on Milan when he was a boy. Then he said Europe had deprived Italy of some of its precious national sovereignty. The euro was good, but businesses were suffering. He wanted to raise pensions to 1,000 lire a month—name-checking Italy’s pre-euro currency before correcting himself.

He ended on a confusing note. After they told him to vacate the stage, he said he had one more thing to add—which  …. was that Italians love dogs and cats. If Forza Italia came to power, they would take measures to protect strays! Again, audience applause. He again mentioned the “Code for Women,” whatever that was—some kind of measures for victims of domestic violence?—adding it to the list, right after the dogs and cats. By then I had almost stopped taking notes. The audience had begun thinning out, since it was well into Sunday lunch. Why was I even listening? His faithful believed in him, his critics did not. End of story.

Last week I told an Italian journalist that I thought while Berlusconi had done tremendous economic and social damage to Italy, he’d only damaged Italy, whereas Trump in my view was damaging the free world. The journalist told me, privately, that I was underestimating the harm Berlusconi had inflicted. It was an urgent struggle to explain to his young children that the world Berlusconi helped create—everything his children had seen on television for their entire lives—was not the way Berlusconi made it seem. The real damage Berlusconi had done to Italy, the journalist told me, was to destroy the line between appearance and reality.

This is an incisive observation, especially in the Trump era,  and I found it significant that he would say this only when my recorder was off. There’s another element to how it’s possible Berlusconi is still on the scene: The complicity of the ruling class. For years, until Berlusconi was forced to step down in 2011, people who did not identify themselves as left-wing critics of his barely ever spoke out against him, even as their children emigrated to find work abroad, even as their savings started to shrink, even if they were fed up or disgusted by him. The ruling class hadn’t spoken out until very late in the game, when the economy was in jeopardy. Italy is still divided between different networks of power, and the notion of a common good is somewhat alien to its political culture. The euro crisis has stabilized. People forget. They change the channel. “Berlusconi looked for amnesty and found something more important in many Italians,” Ezio Mauro told me. “Amnesia.”