Silvio Berlusconi is poised to win his third term as Italian Prime Minister in the snap election called for April. The man known as Il Cavaliere, "The Knight", is riding high in opinion polls. Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition is at least 10 percentage points ahead of his opponents. This week he has kept out of the media spotlight as after his 97 year old mother died on Sunday. But he is expected to go on the attack once he comes out of mourning showing that the country’s wealthiest man remains a dominant force in Italian politics.
Berlusconi is seriously rich. In 2006, Forbes ranked Silvio Berlusconi as the 37th wealthiest person in the world with an estimated personal wealth of $11 billion. He is the owner of Fininvest investment company, which has interests in television, life insurance, movie production, magazines, news and the AC Milan football club. But Berlusconi was never satisfied by wealth alone. He formed his political party Forza Italia (named for a football chant) in 1993 and he became Prime Minister just one year later in coalition with neo-fascist Alleanza Nazionale and Northern League. That lasted one year but he returned to power in 2001. His subsequent five-year stint is a post-war record in Italy’s volatile political landscape.
His likely third win will be a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the 71 year old Berlusconi coming just 18 months after Italy exulted in removing him from office. While in power, he was heavily criticised for putting himself above the law and using his media empire to stifle criticism. He also raised eyebrows with his blunders, eccentricities, and apparent misogyny. No one was exactly sure what he and his party Forza Italia stood for, except perhaps for Berlusconi himself.
According to Bronwen Maddox writing in The Times, Berlusconi does not deserve another chance to become PM. Maddox cites his conflicts of interest with his media and business empire, his change of laws while in power to sidestep charges of false accounting and the fact that nothing in his record suggested he merited another shot at leadership. Maddox said Berlusconi’s most damaging legacy was his 2005 reform of the electoral law which replaced the first-past-the-post element with proportional representation. The first-past-the-post law had been introduced in 1993 and ended Italy’s decades of insecure governments.
Berlusconi’s law change ushered in the fragile nine-party coalition of Romani Prodi which resigned 12 months ago after a Senate defeat on Prodi’s decision to keep Italy’s 1,800 troops in Afghanistan. However Prodi cobbled together another administration, the 61st Italian government since World War II. However he found history repeating itself in January this year. This time the Senate passed another no confidence motion after a small centrist party pulled out of the coalition. This time there was no reprieve and Prodi was left with no alternative but to resign and call a snap election to be held 13-14 April.
Berlusconi was immediate ready to pounce calling for stability in the Senate. His centre-right coalition is now aiming to recruit the small centrist and Catholic party whose defection sank Prodi. Prodi has since stood aside and Berlusconi’s new rival will be Rome's 52-year-old mayor Walter Veltroni. Veltroni has been criticised on the left by Communist and Green groups for not forging a coalition with them. They urged him to rethink his solo strategy and avoid "handing Mr Berlusconi victory on a silver platter". Veltroni, a former Communist himself, has refused these entreaties saying he was open to parliamentary alliances later on with "the reform-minded left, but not the radical left”.
Veltroni says he is avoiding alliances in order to give his Democratic Party a strong identity. This is likely to be a longer term gamble to strengthen his bid to win future elections. He has achieved some success as mayor of Rome, being at the helm when the city achieved 6.4 per cent of the national GDP growing faster than any other part of Italy. Given his relative youth and Italy’s unstable parliamentary system, an election win may not be too far in the future. For now however his uncompromising attitude has left the door wide open for "Il Cavaliere" Berlusconi to ride to a comfortable victory in April.