Italy’s Next Government Hinges on a Familiar Face: Silvio Berlusconi

ROME — During the final campaign rally for Italy’s right-wing coalition before it emerged victorious in Italy’s elections last month, the billionaire mogul Silvio Berlusconi, a smile frozen on his waxen face, stood center stage, propped up, quite literally, by his hard-right partners, Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini, who waved Mr. Berlusconi’s hand above his head.

The tableau may have evoked an Italian remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s” more than a modern-day triumvirate. But the three will now make up the most right-wing Italian government since Mussolini, with Mr. Berlusconi, 86, decreasingly popular, as its fragile linchpin.

It was nearly 30 years ago that Mr. Berlusconi brought his partners’ once small, marginalized parties into one of his governments and Italy’s political mainstream. But today it is Ms. Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, a party descended from the wreckage of Italy’s experiment with Fascism last century, who is almost certain to be the next prime minister when a government is formed perhaps as soon as this week.

The question now, though, is whether the aging center-right leader can fulfill his promise to act as a moderating, pro-European force on Italy’s next government, or whether he has lost control of the politics he set in motion that have made Italy, the birthplace of Fascism, once again a testing ground for the far right’s advance in Europe.

“Europe expects much from us,” Mr. Berlusconi, who declined a request for an interview, wrote last week on Twitter. “And we consider ourselves the guarantor of the next government.”

Even before the government begins, the tensions are already evident. Last week, as Mr. Berlusconi took his new seat in the Senate, a body that almost a decade ago temporarily barred him after a conviction for tax fraud, photographers zoomed in on his notes, perhaps purposefully left visible, describing Ms. Meloni as “overbearing, arrogant, offensive.” Asked about it by reporters, Ms. Meloni snapped that he forgot something: “Not blackmailable.”

The two seemed to make peace during a meeting on Monday evening in Rome, releasing a photo of them smiling together and Mr. Berlusconi calling them “united.”

The notion of Mr. Berlusconi as a protector of Italian democracy is for many a deeply troubling one.

His legions of critics recall his abuses of government power to protect his business interests, his libertine escapades with young women and so-called Bunga Bunga parties while in office, his degrading of Italian women and culture with his humor, and his often crude television channels, which, along with his newspapers and magazines, he exploited for political propaganda.

For them, he is the villain who debased Italian democracy, whose conflicts of interest, questionable associations and apparent illegality set off an opposition movement of angry anti-establishment populists and drove the left into a nervous breakdown from which it has still not recovered.

On the international stage, he is a longtime friend of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom he defended as recently as last month, causing a headache for Ms. Meloni, who is a strong supporter of Ukraine in the war with Russia.

Mr. Berlusconi also prompted a mutiny of centrists in his own party in July when he sank the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whom he publicly admired, as he reached for another taste of power.

“It’s very important to understand immediately that Berlusconi is no friend to democracy,” Paul Ginsborg, the biographer of Mr. Berlusconi, said in a conversation recently, before his death.

But given the composition of the new government, some analysts believe that Mr. Berlusconi may be the best friend proponents of a pro-Europe, centrist and democratic Italy have.

“The responsible part of the center-right is embodied by the leader considered for a long time the most irresponsible in the world,” said Claudio Cerasa, the author of a new book, “The Chains of the Right,” about the embrace of conspiracy theories by nationalists and populists.

Mr. Cerasa, who is also the editor of Il Foglio, a newspaper founded by Mr. Berlusconi’s family but is now independent, noted that Mr. Berlusconi alone on the Italian right had rejected Trumpism, anti-elite populism and Euroskeptic nationalism. He also served as a counterweight to vaccine skepticism exercised by Ms. Meloni and Mr. Salvini, and he governed in coalitions with the center left.

Many in the political establishment believe that Mr. Berlusconi will prevent Ms. Meloni from endangering European unity by gravitating back toward her old allies, including the Euroskeptic and hard-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France. “He’s like a compass,” Mr. Cerasa said.

It is not clear that Ms. Meloni is following him. This month, she, along with former President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Orban, took part in a rally of the far-right Spanish party Vox. “We are not monsters,” she said in a video message. “The people understand that.”

Ms. Meloni, aware of concerns about her ideological past, is eager to assuage international markets by appointing mainstream technocrats to key economic ministries. But they keep turning her down.

Some argue that Mr. Berlusconi’s most lasting legacy on Italian politics — more than the debate he forced about burdensome taxation or judicial overreach — may be his creation of a modern European right-wing coalition, made from previously untouchable parties, which are now led in their current iterations by Ms. Meloni and Mr. Salvini.

In doing so, Mr. Berlusconi eliminated the notion, John Foot, a historian of Fascism said, that “a Fascist should not speak, should not exist, should not have a place in Italian society.”

Mr. Berlusconi said in 2019 at a political rally that, when it came to Mr. Salvini’s League party and the “Fascists,” “we let them in in ’94 and we legitimized them.” He insisted, though, that “we are the brain, the heart, the backbone.”

“Without us,” he said, “the center right would never exist and will never exist.”

Some of Mr. Berlusconi’s longtime supporters cast that alliance as a democratic masterstroke, for forcing the fringe to normalize and compromise in the transactional reality of the capital.

“He transformed these two movements which were, let’s say, loose cannons, or who were out-of-control variables, and brought them into the constitutional harbor,” said Renato Brunetta, who helped found Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. “This was an element of stabilization.”

But after Forza Italia helped trigger new elections, Mr. Brunetta, who was a minister in Mr. Draghi’s government, quit the party and said Ms. Meloni was “actually regressive when it comes to right-wing culture in Italy.”

Ms. Meloni, for her part, appreciated what Mr. Berlusconi had done. In a recent interview, she acknowledged that he “did something unexpected” when in 1993 he supported the mayoral candidacy of the leader at the time of her National Alliance party, who later served as Mr. Berlusconi’s foreign minister.

“That surely brought many who maybe did not have the courage to say it, and thought it in their hearts, to come out,” Ms. Meloni said. “In this sense, it is the theme of legitimization.”

But, Ms. Meloni added, “I believe the time of the right had arrived.”

It now clearly has. Ms. Meloni’s party received 26 percent of the vote, larger than any other. She insisted she was not merely carrying Mr. Berlusconi along because she needed his party’s small percentage to govern, as he once needed her party.

“We don’t need to carry him with us,” Ms. Meloni said. She added, “He may be the person who has imposed himself in the Italian history, in the Italian Republican history, more than any other in the last 20 years.”

Indeed, despite his shuffling gait and the flag-bearing youths who shield him from view as he exits the stage, things seem to be going Mr. Berlusconi’s way.

Last week, his hair looking lacquered, he held court during the first seating of the newly elected Senate.

All of the contradictions of Italy’s history and current politics were on display. As were the tensions between the right-wing partners.

The session was opened by a Holocaust survivor and senator for life who noted that Mussolini’s Fascism took power 100 years ago. Senators elected as their president a Ignazio La Russa, a leader in Ms. Meloni’s party, who carries the middle name Benito and keeps Mussolini memorabilia in his house.

Mr. Berlusconi, who received hand shakes and selfie requests from senators, threw down his pen and angrily cursed Mr. La Russa, whose presidency he tried to block as a reprisal for Ms. Meloni’s refusal to make a minister out of his own lieutenant, Licia Ronzulli, a former nurse who sat beside him and used to help organize his Bunga Bunga soirees.

Mr. Berlusconi’s girlfriend, Marta Fascina, 32, won a seat in the Parliament representing a Sicilian town she never campaigned in. On Sept. 29, his birthday, she arranged for a hot-air balloon to release thousands of red balloon hearts over his villa’s garden.

The next day, Mr. Berlusconi posted a video of his birthday dinner where waiters in white gloves brought out a multitiered cake — one for his soccer team, one for his political party, one for his media empire.

Atop it all sat a likeness of a Mr. Berlusconi, much younger and in his trademark suit, grinning next to an edible earth.

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