Though hard to spot beneath the flurry of cabinet resignations and Paradise Papers revelations, a familiar figure briefly graced our screens last month. Silvio Berlusconi, the eighty-one year-old former Italian prime minister, surprised commentators when his five-party centre-right coalition won the Sicilian regional election on 5 November. With his ally Nello Musumeci now firmly in place as President of Sicily, it may appear as though the path to Rome is once again open to the infamous octogenarian.
Mr Berlusconi’s political career has been one of astounding success and astonishing sleaze. A media tycoon and former owner of AC Milan, he has held the office of prime minister three times under four governments since 1994. Using his Forza Italia party as a Gaullist vehicle for personal power, Il Cavaliere (so named after being awarded the Order of Merit for Labour, which he resigned in 2014) is the third longest-serving Italian prime minister since unification. It is perhaps worth noting here that this count includes Mussolini.
Of course, this glittering success has always been offset by Mr Berlusconi’s questionable behaviour. The former PM has faced over twenty court cases across his political career, with recent charges including abuse of office (2005), political bribery (2006) and defamation (2008). Yet most damning of all is the case that refuses to go away. In 2010 Mr Berlusconi was accused of soliciting a seventeen year-old Moroccan belly dancer for sex at one of his notorious ‘bunga bunga’ parties. In addition to that, his attempts to have the Milanese police cover up the case led to an accusation of concussione (malfeasance in office), a charge he faced whilst simultaneously being tried for tax evasion.
By August 2013, Mr Berlusconi had been found guilty of all three charges. Despite facing several years in prison, careful legal wrangling (and his advanced age) meant that he only spent a year doing community service at a care home for his tax fraud and was able to appeal against the other charges.
Such a lurid private (and indeed public life) would destroy any normal political career for good. However, Mr Berlusconi has insisted on continuing his high-profile role in Italian politics, despite being legally banned from holding office due to his criminal convictions. It was therefore quite a coup for him when Mr Musumeci won November’s election, defeating both the populist Five Star Movement and the ruling Democratic Party’s left-wing alliance. With nearly 40% of the vote going to the right-wing alliance (which includes Forza Italia), the first step on the return to power appeared to have been laid.
However, court cases continue to hound the aging politician. At the end of November it was revealed that Mr Berlusconi would stand trial for bribing a witness to falsify evidence during his 2013 underage prostitution case. The trial is set to begin in February 2018, mere months before the expected general election in May.
At this point, the question one must ask is whether or not such a trial will actually have any effect on Mr Berlusconi’s return to the political spotlight. Few of his supporters care about his legal issues anymore, and he has assembled a team of British lawyers (of all things) to appeal his 2013 tax fraud case in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. Likewise he is not the only Italian political figure to face difficulties in running for office. Beppe Grillo, the ex-comedian and leader of the vaguely left-wing populist Five Start Movement, is unable to hold public office due to a driving manslaughter conviction dating back to 1985. Matteo Renzi, the young former PM and leader of the Democratic Party, is still struggling to improve his image after his resignation following a constitutional referendum in 2016.
Naturally, Mr Berlusconi knows that he does not have to be prime minister to hold power. Although his criminal convictions may bar him from public office, he could always act as kingmaker to a younger, more clean-cut figure during the 2018 elections. Indeed he has already made overtures in this direction. In late November it became apparent that Mr Berlusconi favoured former Carabinieri (gendarmerie) General Leonardo Gallitelli as a potential candidate, as well as several major Italian businessmen. His right-wing allies in the Northern League party may protest against these suggestions, but Mr Berlusconi need only remind them that Forza Italia remains ahead in the polls.
So, is the facelifted former strongman of Italian politics about to make a reappearance? Quite possibly. The fact that he is still actively seeking a role in political life at the age of eighty-one would suggest so, as would the pleasure he takes in orchestrating the rise of right-wing parties across Italy. True, he may have a sleazy and corrupt past, but much like Donald Trump he seems capable of shrugging controversy off as either a joke or an unfair personal attack. Even the official bar against him holding office means little. Mr Berlusconi could quite easily direct the next leader of Forza Italia from the sidelines, controlling the future of the party he considers very much his own.
The Sicilian election has proved that the Dirty Old Man of Italy is far from finished. It is too early to guess the outcome of 2018, but rest assured that Silvio will be there, smiling his pristine smile.