John Hooper, The Guardian
STANDFIRST: Disgraced former PM’s remarks fuel speculation that he is aiming to regain power on ticket of withdrawal from euro
He may have been jeered from office last year. He may be on trial accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl. And last week a prosecutor in Milan asked for him to be locked up in jail for three years and eight months for allegedly shady business practices.
But this weekend, Italy was abuzz with speculation that Silvio Berlusconi is planning a comeback – and could return to lead the right into an early general election, perhaps as standard-bearer of a party bent on withdrawing Italy from the euro.
The media tycoon gave his clearest indication yet that he is planning a return at the end of last week, when he told an audience of young rightwingers: “I’m working on solutions. I’m still here.” And then, as if speaking from a campaign platform, he added: “Give me 51% [of the votes].”
His cry brought his audience to their feet, chanting: “Silvio, Silvio.” Speaking as if he had already taken back the leadership of the Freedom People, the movement he founded in 2007, Berlusconi said he intended to change its name and ensure that half its candidates at the next election were women.
It was the latest in a succession of interventions that have Italy’s political class wondering about a Berlusconi comeback in a more eurosceptic guise. The former prime minister recently warned that Germany “should get out of the euro, or others will do so”. Last week, he said that regaining its own currency would have advantages for an export-led economy such as Italy’s.
It’s all a far cry from Berlusconi’s ignominious exit last November, when, having governed Italy for eight of the previous 10 years, he handed in his resignation to the strains of “hallelujah” from a crowd outside the presidential palace.
By then, a flood of leaked claims about his “bunga bunga” parties, including allegations of half-naked showgirls dressed up as nuns and policewomen, had turned the billionaire politician into a figure of international ridicule. In the final weeks of his leadership, fellow EU leaders made strenuous efforts to avoid being photographed with him, and almost his only high-level friendship was an intensely controversial one with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.
Berlusconi’s party still has the votes in parliament to bring down the unelected technocratic government led by Mario Monti. A snap vote in the autumn would have effects far beyond Italy, because it would bring down the curtain on Monti and his team, put into office last November to pass unpopular measures demanded by Italy’s eurozone partners that Berlusconi’s government had been reluctant to introduce. Their fall would almost certainly plunge the euro into renewed crisis.
The yield on Italian government bonds – a benchmark indicator that moves in the opposite direction to confidence in an economy – has been creeping higher since mid-March, though the rate dipped last week to close on Friday night at 5.77%. Berlusconi said the rise in Italy’s borrowing costs showed that, since he left office, “the situation has not changed”.
Some observers doubted whether the TV magnate could reverse his decision to hand the leadership of the party to his former justice minister, Angelino Alfano. But his chief opponent when he was in government did not rule it out.
Pierluigi Bersani of Italy’s main leftwing group, the Democratic party, quoted an old Italian proverb: “There’s no limit to the worst.” Ironically, the PD leader was himself presented at the weekend with a new and powerful leadership challenge.
Italy’s colourful but long-stagnant political scene has been thrown into confusion in recent weeks by the seemingly unstoppable ascent of the Five Star movement, founded by the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo. Its growing success has gone hand in hand with mounting dissatisfaction with Italy’s mainstream politicians and increasing anger over an economy that has been stalled for more than 10 years.
The Five Star movement’s programme makes no reference to the euro. But Grillo has described the single currency as an “ever-tightening noose” and said Italy’s exit ought not to be taboo.
A poll released by the La7 television channel last week indicated that the Five Star movement could emerge from the next election as Italy’s second-biggest party, ahead of the Freedom People.
Introducing a further element of uncertainty to the political scene, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who has been widely canvassed as the leader of a rejuvenated centre left, on Saturday threw down the gauntlet to the PD’s existing leaders. Naming one by one the party’s barons, the 37-year-old Renzi told a conference he had organised: “You’ve done much for the country, much for the party. But now Basta!“
In a speech packed with metaphors of successful renewal, Renzi pulled out two cameras, each made by Polaroid. One, he said, took 10 minutes to produce a black-and-white photograph. The other could turn out a colour picture almost instantly.
The executives at Polaroid, “knew how to renew the brand”‚ said Renzi. “Let’s try it ourselves.” The PD is to hold a poll before the end of the year to select its candidate for prime minister.
The PdL is to do the same. But several political commentators and pollsters said there were marked differences between the two leadership struggles that appeared to be taking shape.Maurizio Pessato of the polling firm SWG said the face-off within the PD was taking place within a structured framework and would eventually lead to the choice of a leader accepted by all, or most, of the party. But, he said, “On the centre right the situation is a lot more difficult.” Berlusconi had stepped aside, but he was having second thoughts, a situation that was “putting the brakes on everything,” said Pessato.
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