Silvio Berlusconi’s last moments before resigning last November were celebrated by several thousand jubilant Italians outside Rome’s presidential palace and a choir singing the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah. After years of scandals, sexual and financial, he had gone forever – or so they hoped.
Eight months later and the prospect that the billionaire media tycoon might attempt a political comeback, despite past denials, is driving his supporters into ecstasy.
“Berlusconi back on the field gives me pleasure. I am enjoying it more than an orgasm,” purred Giancarlo Galan, former culture minister and ardent Berlusconi loyalist.
Brilliant media player that he is, the 75-year-old, three-time former prime minister is keeping everyone in suspense, having not said a word in public since Angelino Alfano, his designated heir apparent, confirmed on Wednesday – without a hint of remorse – that his mentor was expected to run again in elections next spring.
A previous commitment by the People of Liberty leadership, including Mr Berlusconi, to hold primaries to choose its candidate for prime minister has been quietly dropped.
Already the possibility of Mr Berlusconi re-entering the fray, perhaps on an anti-European platform, is rattling institutions and investors. This week, the annual IMF report on Italy expressed concerns over the risk of political instability, a theme repeated by Moody’s rating agency in downgrading Italy by two notches on Friday.
“He is bad news for Italy,” commented Sony Kapoor, head of Re-Define, a Brussels think-tank, noting the rise of anti-euro populist movements and the lack of an “obvious competent candidate” to replace Mario Monti as prime minister next year.
People close to Mr Berlusconi caution that no final decision has been made. Perhaps he is flying a kite – which indeed is reported to be the party’s new symbol in the colours of the national flag. Some question that after setting records as Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister, he has lost touch with reality, bitter that he was hounded from power by a combination of pressure from markets and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Still, Mr Berlusconi sees his opening, with an economy that is in worse shape than when Mr Monti and his technocrats took over and an electorate easily seduced by promises of tax cuts that won him three previous elections. And, in the hands of his media machine, the widely held perception that Brussels and Berlin have failed to back up Mr Monti can be subtly transformed into an anti-European and vote-winning message.
Arguing for his return, party officials point to a privately commissioned poll showing that with Mr Alfano as leader the People of Liberty would sink to 10 per cent in elections, but soar to 30 per cent with Mr Berlusconi back on top.
However, an IPR opinion poll released on Friday suggested that with either leader the party would reach 30 per cent, and only then in alliance with the Northern League, its former partners, and other rightwing groups. Consistent with other surveys, IPR found that a centre-left alliance led by the Democrats is still on track for victory, albeit possibly short of a stable majority.
As if Italians needed a reminder of the scandals that still dog Mr Berlusconi, his trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute, which he denies, continues in Milan. Silvia Trevaini, a young reporter in Mr Berlusconi’s Mediaset television company, testified on Friday that he had given her €440,000 to buy two houses as a gesture for a relationship that was “affectionate but not intimate”.
Separately a court in Lazio ruled that Mediaset had received illegal state aid during Mr Berlusconi’s time as prime minister in a dispute with the rival television empire run by Rupert Murdoch.
The biggest clue to Mr Berlusconi’s intentions are seen in this week’s decision as owner of AC Milan to sell striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and midfielder Thiago Silva to Paris Saint Germain for around €65m. The favourite football metaphor of his party faithful is that Mr Berlusconi is preparing to “return to the pitch”. They see an electoral war chest in the making.
An aide to Mr Berlsuconi said a final decision would not be made before September.
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