Thursday, December 1 2022

Silvio Berlusconi was trying to project an image of a veteran statesman in Italian politics, ready to guide right-wing instigator Giorgia Meloni in forming a new administration, as he contemplates a political comeback after sex scandals and accusations of financial misconduct.

The billionaire tycoon, 86, told a TV interviewer ahead of last month’s general election that Europe was looking to him and his Forza Italia party to secure a “liberal, pro-European and Atlanticist government” in Rome, amid fears of an Italian pivot to Russia. .

Yet as Meloni worked to form her government, the former prime minister, who was effectively forced to resign at the height of Italy’s debt crisis in 2011, seemed less a stabilizing influence than an embarrassing uncle in out of step with his time.

The three-party coalition, which also includes Matteo Salvini’s League, was upset this week when audio recordings were leaked of Berlusconi telling party lawmakers about his renewed friendship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He also defended Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and blamed President Volodymyr Zelensky for the conflict.

Meloni’s opponents pounced, wondering how she could honor her promise to maintain Italy’s support for Ukraine with an ally in Putin’s thrall. Others said Forza Italia, whose second-in-command Antonio Tajani has now been appointed foreign minister, should be barred from sensitive ministerial posts given their leader’s pro-Russian views.

The leaked tapes came just days after Berlusconi was spotted holding a handwritten note describing Meloni, who leads Italy’s Brotherhood party, as “overbearing, arrogant and offensive”.

The pair managed to put aside their differences to present a united front to President Sergio Mattarella, allowing Meloni to be sworn in as Italy’s prime minister on Saturday. But the obvious tensions highlight issues Meloni may have with his attention-seeking coalition partner.

Giorgia Meloni during her election campaign © Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Indeed, Berlusconi’s affection for Putin is neither new nor secret in Italy. He formed close ties with the Russian leader during his tenure as Italy’s longest-serving prime minister. The bond survived Berlusconi’s withdrawal from the Chigi Palace and the couple continued to meet regularly.

“I literally don’t understand how people can be surprised,” Pietro Castelli, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, said of Berlusconi’s leaked remarks. “He has always been one of Vladimir Putin’s best friends. . . He was one of the main players in legitimizing Putin in Europe.

Yet analysts still wonder why Berlusconi, a shrewd political veteran, would make such comments in front of dozens of people, just as the right-wing coalition he began building nearly 30 years ago was about to seize power for the first time since his resignation.

Giovanni Capoccia, professor of politics at Oxford University, said the drama appeared to be part of an ongoing power struggle between Meloni – whose party won 26% of the vote, making her the undisputed leader of the coalition – and Berlusconi, aggrieved at being upstaged and his inability to secure key posts for his loyalists.

“He was never the junior coalition partner, he was always the leader,” Capoccia said. “Now he has to negotiate from a weak position and beg for ministerial posts.”

Berlusconi wanted a formal affirmation of his importance with an appointment as a senior adviser, as well as a staunch ally in the Justice Department. At least one criminal case against the Forza Italia executive, convicted of tax evasion in 2012, is still ongoing in the maze of Italy’s legal system.

Berlusconi and Putin touch hands during a press conference in 2010
Berlusconi’s affection for Putin is neither new nor secret in Italy © Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

“Obviously there is a fight, and it will continue until one of them wins,” Capoccia said. With Berlusconi’s pro-Putin speech, “the message is, ‘if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to make it difficult for you’.”

Berlusconi, who was known for hosting bawdy “bunga bunga” sex parties while in power, was also likely to resent his subordination to Meloni, according to Castelli. “Losing the upper hand on a woman is probably part of his frustration as well,” he said.

Meloni was a teenage activist in Rome in 1994, the year Berlusconi used his vast Mediaset empire as a catapult to seize power, after Italy’s post-World War II political establishment was effectively destroyed by a corruption scandal.

Fourteen years later, Meloni, whose fiery speeches and work ethic propelled her into the ranks of the National Alliance, part of Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, became youth minister in his government.

Since losing power, Berlusconi has struggled with serious health issues, including major heart surgery in 2016 and a battle with the coronavirus. There is regular speculation about his personality-centric party’s future, given the lack of an obvious political heir.

Marianna Griffini, professor of politics at King’s College London, said Berlusconi had never come to terms with the downfall of the political scene.

“Berlusconi is having a hard time retiring [to] the life of the old man. He always enjoyed the limelight, first as an entrepreneur and then as a politician,” she said. The collapse of Mario Draghi’s government in the summer and the snap elections that followed offered “the opportunity to re-enter Italian politics with a vengeance and make a glorious comeback”.

However, Giovanni Orsina, author of a book on Berlusconi, said it was still “difficult to understand whether there is a political strategy” behind the public leaking of his pro-Russian remarks or “other explanations that must be taken into account, such as age”. ”.

The recordings “created a lot of headaches for Meloni but they also create a lot of headaches for Berlusconi, his party and his partners,” he said. “It’s a lose-lose situation.”

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