ROME, Italy — Italians were greeted by a familiar sight this week many thought they’d never see again: Silvio Berlusconi beaming triumphantly from the front pages of the country’s newspapers.
Two years after being forced from office by economic crisis and sex scandals, the former prime minister has returned to reap the spoils of the parliament’s traumatic and ultimately failed attempt to elect a new president last weekend.
In normal times, the head of state is a largely symbolic figure. But the political crisis that began when Berlusconi was ousted from government in 2011 and deepened after inconclusive elections in February has forced the president to take charge.
At the age of 87 after a single seven-year term, Giorgio Napolitano was ready to pass the job to someone else, as every past president has done.
But the country’s legislators were unable to oblige him. After four votes in three days failed to yield a successor, the bosses of the country’s main parties begged the reluctant former communist to stay on.
After excoriating Italy’s political parties in an impassioned inauguration address, Napolitano took a first step toward ending two months of political deadlock on Wednesday by appointing Enrico Letta, the 46-year-old deputy of Italy's center-left Democratic Party (PD) to be the country's new prime minister.
A moderate with strong ties to the Catholic Church, Letta has long served as his party's envoy across the isle. It's a role he practically inherited as the nephew of Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's right-hand man. His appointment underscores Napolitano's insistence on a government built on bipartisan support.
Forming a government that can withstand the centrifugal forces which threaten to tear the PD apart, however, will be easier said than done — to Berlusconi's great advantage.
The PD is still reeling from the humiliating defeat it suffered in failing to elect a successor for the elderly Italian president. It had the numbers to elects its own candidate, but it lacked the political will. Riven by infighting before the vote, it descended into chaos after its leadership resigned en masse.
James Walston of the American University in Rome explains that as Berlusconi’s historic enemies, the PD’s loss is the former prime minister’s gain. “There’s absolutely no doubt that he’s come out on top,” he explains.
While the PD now risks completely breaking up, Berlusconi and his allies look calm, collected and cohesive — a rare quality in Italian politics that frazzled voters admire.
A poll released by the EMG agency shortly before the election showed Berlusconi’s center-right coalition pulling ahead of the Democrats, who won more votes in the last election than any other party, although not enough to secure a governing majority in parliament.
Berlusconi’s popularity can only have increased following the PD’s meltdown this week. It’s no stretch to imagine that he would win if elections were held today.
That’s a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the 76-year-old politician whom most had given up for dead a year ago. If few predicted his comeback, however, fewer still imagined he’d outlast his archrival Pier Luigi Bersani, the PD leader.
Three months ago, he looked like the best bet to become Italy’s prime minister. But Bersani resigned on Saturday night after rebels within his own party sabotaged the presidential vote under the cover of secret balloting.
That leaves Letta, Bersani's former deputy, in the position of having to keep his party together while working with Berlusconi to pass the reforms Italy needs.
Napolitano wants a broad coalition in power capable of overhauling the country’s election laws, simplifying its muddled bureaucracy and digging its economy out of recession. Reforms on that scale would require tremendous political capital, enabling Berlusconi to demand concessions on other matters near and dear to his heart in order to ensure his support.
Those issues include proposed legislation to regulate conflicts of interest for politicians like him who also happen to control massive business empires. That was one of 10 recommendations put forward by Napolitano’s “wise men,” a group of experts charged with drafting a list of priorities for the next government.
With Berlusconi holding up one end of a governing coalition, however, a new conflict-of-interests bill wouldn’t get very far.
There are also his legal woes. Berlusconi is currently on trial in two separate cases — for tax fraud and paying for sex with a minor — and under investigation for allegedly bribing a rival senator. It’s conceivable, although unlikely, that one of the cases could result in a warrant for his arrest.
Were that to happen, prosecutors would first need the consent of parliament. Until now, both the PD and the followers of the anti-establishment former comedian Beppe Grillo, who claimed 25 percent of the vote, have said they would grant it. If the PD joins Berlusconi’s party in a broad coalition, however, it may have to withdraw its support.
Walston believes Napolitano’s mere presence also helps Berlusconi. Although the president has no authority to legislate, his words carry hefty symbolic weight in setting the tone and agenda for the country’s politics.
That also holds true for his role as the head of Italy’s top magistrates authority, the main governing body of judges and prosecutors, whom Berlusconi has accused of plotting against him.
“In Napolitano, Berlusconi has a soft president he can manipulate and who’s not going to be tough on him,” says Walston. “He’s been very supportive of Berlusconi, both in regard to his prosecutions and the idea of a [broad] coalition.”
That doesn’t mean the future will be completely smooth sailing for Berlusconi, however. His tax fraud case is close to a verdict, and his lawyers’ attempt to have it moved forward suggest they’re wary about its outcome.
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And although the PD may be down for the count, Grillo and his followers are far from it. Berlusconi can count on staunch and inflexible opposition from their ranks, as well as daily lampooning from Grillo, whose appeals to overthrow the political order continue to resonate among voters.
Moreover, Italy’s pressing problems haven’t gone away. Bond yields may be down — making it easier for the government to raise the money it needs to keep the economy afloat — but jobless numbers are soaring and businesses are closing by the score.
Presuming Napolitano is able to put together a new government soon, unless it’s ready to tackle those problems head on, it, too, will be headed for the wayside.