Yes, Berlusconi, 81, is back. Again. His smile is brighter, his cheeks are Silly Putty-toned and tauter, his waistline is slimmed and his hair has regenerated into a Ken-Doll helmet. But despite his waxworks appearance, pre-Weinsteinian penchant for priapic innuendo and lingering criminal trials, Berlusconi, a former Italian prime minister, is no longer the joke of European politics.
Instead, political analysts agree that the only sure bet in Italy’s coming and critical March 4 elections is that Berlusconi will return as a major force in Italian, and possibly European, politics. Even if he will not be prime minister immediately (he is barred until next year following a fraud conviction), he is likely to be the kingmaker.
His resurrection is both astonishing and entirely unsurprising when one considers that Berlusconi has over the decades conditioned and desensitized an electorate that has picked him as prime minister three times despite, well, everything.
He has been investigated over accusations of mob links. He entered politics in part to protect his vast business interests and then, as the owner of the majority of Italy’s commercial television stations, used his sprawling media empire to stay in power. He hosted underage women at what he called “elegant dinners” but what the world knew as sex-fueled Bunga Bunga bacchanals. He made a habit of embarrassing Italy on the global stage.
And yet, in a measure of how unpredictable global politics have become, things have come back around for the pre-Trump era’s leading personification of conflicts of interest, outsize appetites and the politics of victimization and press demonization. In the age of President Donald Trump — comparisons to whom Berlusconi cannot stand — the Italian mogul has successfully recast himself as grandfather, or nonno, to the nation.
Italian elections, frequent and feuding, are often dismissed as opera buffa offerings from a country that never changes. Not this year. After France and Germany gave the European establishment a breather by beating back far-right wing insurgencies, it is Italy’s unpredictable and angry Five Star Movement that worries them. In contrast, Berlusconi suddenly doesn’t look so bad. And the master salesman, as crafty as they come, is obligingly playing the role of wise and moderate statesman.
“He believes that he can reinvent himself infinitely, like you can see in his face,” said Sofia Ventura, a political scientist at the University of Bologna. Berlusconi, a master communicator, she said, was presenting himself as a consensus maker as he targeted older Italians who watched his television channels.
In uncertain times, Italians may be choosing the devil they knew. “He’s reassuring,” she said.
But people close to Berlusconi say that underneath his new, still surface runs a deep current of revenge. He wants to leave the game a winner and settle scores with all those who prematurely danced on his grave.
In 2011, a crushing global debt crisis forced Berlusconi’s resignation. He was at the time distracted by accusations that he had paid an underage woman named Karima el-Mahroug, aka Ruby Heart-Stealer, for sex at wild parties packed with aspiring showgirls. (A court later overturned his conviction for paying for sex, though he is due to stand trial on accusations that he bribed witnesses, including a pianist at one of the parties.)
Then in 2013 an Italian court convicted him of tax fraud related to inflated invoices at his Mediaset television empire. His prison sentence was converted, because of his age, to community service at an old age home. Later that year, Italian lawmakers ousted him from parliament and barred him from holding office until 2019.
The setbacks knocked him to a political nadir. As he griped about being the victim of a political coup (he ultimately appealed, so far in vain, to the European Court of Human Rights), members of his party defected, and in 2015 Matteo Renzi, the brash new prime minister from the Democratic Party who Berlusconi had admired as an heir, dashed his comeback dreams with Machiavellian efficiency. In 2016, Berlusconi underwent major heart surgery.
But that all seems a long time ago.
With the help of swimming, gymnastics and visits to a beauty farm in Trentino Alto-Adige, Berlusconi’s health has recovered. He re-emerged as Italy’s kindly granddad, if one with a 32-year-old girlfriend, unlimited means and a television empire that helped him recharm politically important older voters. The stain of Bunga Bunga seemed to lift.
Power of television
“This is a country that has dedicated a little bit of attention to love,” said Emilio Fede, who for more than a quarter century from his perch as an anchor on a Berlusconi-owned television channel acted as Berlusconi’s cheerleader (his detractors say lap dog).
Himself still a defendant in a Bunga Bunga-related case, he insisted Italians have begun saying: “What a bore these stories of Bunga Bunga. Then to speak of Ruby as a minor? For God’s sake.”
Fede said that despite all the focus in Italian politics on social media, Berlusconi believed in the power of television. Berlusconi himself would not sit for an interview, despite months of repeated requests.
His advisers acknowledge that he has cleverly nurtured a constituency of aging animal lovers — and potential voters — by frequently appearing on a show on one of his networks in which he pets his fluffy white dogs and bottle-feeds lambs.
In the meantime, the politics of Italy and the world, it seems, has swung back to him.
Berlusconi exacted revenge on Renzi by campaigning against a referendum championed by the prime minister; its defeat forced his resignation. Anxiety about lackluster economic growth and illegal immigration played directly into the hands of Berlusconi, who was way ahead of his time when it came to co-opting the anti-immigrant right.
It again fell to Berlusconi, who never groomed a successor, to act as the centrist glue for anti-immigrant, racially motivated and post-fascist forces.
Five Star Movement
The political environment that has aided his comeback has also benefited the Five Star Movement, now the country’s leading party. But Italy’s politics remain a system of ever-shifting coalitions, and the Five Star Movement, for now, has refused to sully itself with partners.
If the Five Star Movement has grown as digital media darling, Berlusconi is unapologetically old media. But that might just still work in a country where more than 20 percent of the population is 65 or older.
“You win an election on television,” Fede said.
Almost nightly, Berlusconi is on air calmly excoriating members of the Five Star Movement as inexperienced know-nothings and the modern incarnation of communists taking orders from a Milanese Politburo.
While “aesthetic treatments” physically turned Berlusconi into “another person,” Fede said, “the thing that he hasn’t lost, which is very important, is his voice.” And television channels to speak on.
Berlusconi’s party still has only about 17 percent support in polls, and must still contend with mutinous and euroskeptic partners. In contrast, Berlusconi appears a mitigating force.
In the event of an absolute electoral victory, a long shot, Berlusconi has said he would act as a movie director guiding a hand-picked “super candidate” or maybe — by the time the ban on his political participation is lifted in 2019 — himself. At this stage, anything is possible, including a broad coalition with Renzi that chooses a consensus prime minister.
But for now, it is Berlusconi who is on a winning streak. His coalition scored big in this summer’s municipal elections. A judge recently ruled that he no longer needs to pay 1.4 million euros a month in alimony to his ex-wife, Veronica Lario, who once called him “shameless trash” after he attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old woman.
Other relationships have held up better. Earlier this year, Berlusconi gave his good friend President Vladimir Putin of Russia a birthday present. It was a duvet cover featuring the two old pals shaking hands.
Berlusconi’s confidants say the Italian sees himself as a potential bridge between Putin, who is increasingly popular in Italy, and Trump, who isn’t. Berlusconi has been deeply reluctant to discuss Trump.
Comparison to Trump
One person who spoke privately with the Berlusconi family about Trump said Berlusconi had a low opinion of the U.S. president and disliked being compared to him, though the comparisons seem nearly inevitable.
“Surely Berlusconi doesn’t love it,” agreed Giovanni Toti, a close ally of Berlusconi and the president of Liguria. He argued that while Berlusconi pretended to be coarse during campaigns, he was really a sophisticate. “It’s a mistake to compare Trump to one of the most experienced statesmen in Europe,” he said.
Alan Friedman, author of My Way, an authorized biography of Berlusconi, said he had brought up the incessant comparisons to Trump. “I’m more moderate than Trump,” Berlusconi said grumpily, according to Friedman.
But in important ways, and not just their backgrounds in real estate, television and hair care travails, there are similarities. As Friedman pointed out, Berlusconi’s objectification of women and coarse language “steadily debased Italian culture over time.”
And like Trump, Berlusconi essentially drove the political opposition bonkers during his collective nine years in office.
On Thursday, as Berlusconi left the TV studio, Rita Monaco, a 59-year-old member of the studio audience, said that while Berlusconi could have “done without” the dirty joke about sex in the studio, she found him “positive and optimistic, notwithstanding everything.” He had won her vote.