Berlusconi seeks return to power despite sex scandals

Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi cannot run for office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction. But he hopes the European Court of Human Rights will overturn this ban in time for him to run in nationwide elections next year.
Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi cannot run for office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction. But he hopes the European Court of Human Rights will overturn this ban in time for him to run in nationwide elections next year.PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME • In a post-Harvey Weinstein world, logic would dictate that Mr Silvio Berlusconi, who hosted wild parties with young women and brags about his sexual prowess, would not have a ghost of a chance at political resurrection.

But logic and Italian politics have never been synonymous.

Last Monday, the four-time former prime minister's right-wing bloc relished a huge political victory in regional elections in Sicily. Silvio, as his diehard adoring acolytes call him, was back in the driver's seat.

"Berlusconi is alive" was the headline in La Verita, a right-wing newspaper the next day. The mainstream Corriere Della Sera ran a cartoon showing Mr Berlusconi, wrapped in a burial shroud, emerging from a tomb like Lazarus in the New Testament of the Bible.

The regional Sicilian ballot, in which Mr Berlusconi's candidate, Mr Nello Musumeci, won big, was seen as a dry run for nationwide elections due before May next year.

As the 81-year-old media tycoon campaigned tirelessly for Mr Musumeci, betting that a victory in Sicily would be the springboard for a national return to power of the centre-right, the former premier's sex scandals were no issue.

"Unfortunately, this is a country where if one violates rules on sexual ethics, he is admired," said Dr Anna Foa, a history professor who is on a team of women who write a monthly edition on women's issues for Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

Mr Berlusconi is due to stand trial on charges that he bribed witnesses to silence them over accusations he paid for sex with young women... But far from being a hindrance, commentators say that in Italian politics, scandals can help, if only because voters believe there is little left to hide.

"Bunga Bunga" - the term of uncertain origin that the billionaire media magnate gave to his wild parties with young women at his plush residence near Milan - is now part of the modern Italian lexicon.

He is due to stand trial on charges that he bribed witnesses to silence them over accusations he paid for sex with young women. In an earlier related case, he was acquitted of having sex with one when she was still 17. He denies all wrongdoing.

But far from being a hindrance, commentators say that in Italian politics, scandals can help, if only because voters believe there is little left to hide.

For now, Mr Berlusconi cannot run for office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction. But he hopes that the European Court of Human Rights overturns this ban in time for him to run next year.

Even if the courts deny him the chance, he would still be calling the shots as leader of the centre-right in the event of a victory at the national elections.

A poll conducted after the regional vote in Sicily showed that the outcome has further weakened the ruling party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi and strengthened the populist 5-Star Movement's lead.

Based on the Ipsos poll published in Corriere Della Sera last Saturday, a centre-right coalition would win next year's general election with 253 seats, while the 5-Star would have 173 and Mr Renzi's Democratic Party 164, together with a smaller ally, leading to a hung Parliament.

As Italy nears the national vote, concerns are mounting that it may leave the country ungovernable.

The poll showed the 5-Star Movement now leads with 29.3 per cent of preferences, while the Democratic Party stands at 24.3 per cent, having lost six percentage points in six months.

Italy has just introduced a new electoral system that is expected to handicap the anti-establishment 5-Star, favouring instead mainstream political blocs.

The voting system - a mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-post - will benefit parties that form pre-election coalitions, something the 5-Star has always ruled out.

Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party had 16.1 per cent of preferences, according to the poll. The anti-immigrant Northern League had another 15.3 per cent, and smaller centre-right party Fratelli d'Italia stood at 5.1 per cent.

Half of the respondents in the poll said Mr Renzi had been weakened by the Sicilian vote and should not run for premier again, while 32 per cent thought he remained the best option for the Democratic Party.

Mr Renzi stepped down as prime minister after voters rejected his landmark constitutional reform in December last year. Half of the people polled said they thought the centre-right would not be able to stay united once in power.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Berlusconi seeks return to power despite sex scandals'. Print Edition | Subscribe