'Gambling Away Trust': Fears Rise of a Berlusconi Resurrection

Can Silvio Berlusconi really win the election on Sunday and Monday? Zoom
REUTERS

Can Silvio Berlusconi really win the election on Sunday and Monday?

European Parliamentary President Martin Schulz has warned Italians against voting for Silvio Berlusconi in upcoming elections. He joins a growing list of leaders who are wary of the return of "Il Cavaliere." The worry is particularly pronounced in the financial world.

Back in 2004, Silvio Berlusconi was seen as something of a salve for political wounds that had been plaguing Italy for decades. On May 5 of that year, a slew of newspaper articles pointed to the fact that, having been in office for 1,060 days, Berlusconi had become the longest serving postwar Italian prime minister -- beating out the 59 previous governments that had ruled from Rome since 1946.

Even then, of course, he was a divisive figure. His own comparison of his longevity with that of World War II-era dictator Benito Mussolini certainly didn't help. And now, after three terms as prime minister and a fourth looming should he be able to pull out a surprise victory in the election on Sunday and Monday, top German politicians have had enough.

Germany's Martin Schulz, the president of European Parliament, became the latest on Wednesday to warn Italians against casting their ballots for Il Cavaliere. Berlusconi, he said, "has previously sent Italy into a tailspin with his irresponsible actions as head of government and his personal escapades." He said that a lot was riding on the upcoming vote "including the avoidance of gambling away trust."

It is, of course, hardly news that Schulz is no great fan of Berlusconi. In 2003, when Schulz was a rank-and-file European parliamentarian and Berlusconi occupied the position of European Council president, the Italian prime minister took umbrage at critical comments made by Schulz. In response, Berlusconi said: "I know that in Italy there is a man producing a film on Nazi concentration camps. I shall put you forward for the part of guard." The comment unleashed a brief but intense diplomatic tiff between Rome and Berlin.

Concerned Business Leaders

Prior to Schulz's warning, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble allegedly told the Italian newsmagazine l'Espresso this week that his "advice to the Italians is not to make the same mistake again by re-electing (Berlusconi)," though his spokesman later denied the comment.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also issued an only slightly veiled warning against voting for Berlusconi in comments to the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday. And the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in German parliament, Ruprecht Polenz, told the paper this week that "Italy needs political leaders who stand for the future. Berlusconi is certainly not one of them."

It is unclear whether the concern is warranted. Italy does not allow the publication of public opinion polls in the two weeks prior to elections. But surveys earlier this month showed that Berlusconi's center-right party was rapidly closing in on the center-left Democratic Party (PD) led by Pier Luigi Barsani.

For all the hand-wringing in Berlin and Brussels, however, it is business leaders who seem to be the most concerned. When Berlusconi resigned in the autumn of 2011 to make way for the technocrat government led by Mario Monti, the country was faced with skyrocketing borrowing costs as investors lost all faith in the ability of Rome to manage its enormous, €2 trillion ($2.64 trillion) sovereign debt load.

'Horror Scenario for Investors'

Since then -- with a timely assist from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, who last year promised unlimited bond buys to keep borrowing affordable -- Monti has been able to keep Italy out of the economic headlines.

But the country's vital signs remain weak, with the economy having shrunk by 2.2 percent in 2012, extending its longest recession in two decades. Unemployment is at a record high of 11.2 percent.

Echoing many of his financial world peers, Commerzbank chief economist Jörg Krämer told business daily Handelsblatt this week that a Berlusconi re-election "would be a horror scenario for investors and would bring the sovereign debt crisis back to a boil." Ulrich Kater, from Germany's DekaBank, said that "a Berlusconi victory would hinder the reestablishment of trust in the euro."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one assumes, is likely also opposed to seeing Berlusconi back in power in Rome, though she has been at pains to avoid comment on the Italian campaign. She has been the target of his unflattering comments more than once and a major element of his stump speeches has been that of attacking Merkel and Germany.

Mario Monti, however, seems to think that Merkel is opposed to the Italian center-left. In an interview with the Italian news agency Adnkronos, he said that "Merkel fears the consolidation of parties from the left, especially in an election year for her. I don't think she has any wish to see the PD arrive in government." His spokeswoman was quick to note that Monti had not spoken with Merkel on the subject.

cgh -- with wire reports

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1. How is this Democratic?
Mike W 02/21/2013
Surely, non-Italians (especially foreign politicians bound by convention) cannot comment or advise the Italian voters whom they should place their democratic trust in? This is a Sovereign matter and out-with the domain of EU politicians who are not Italian to comment on surely?
2. Democracy in Action
sylvesterthecat 02/25/2013
Ah, Martin Schultz, the man who gives German politicians a bad name. It seems he likes Italy about as much as he likes Britain but that doesn't stop him giving his gratuitous advice to all and sundry. It's a good job nobody's listening!
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