By commenting that Germany should perhaps leave the euro and exerting significant pressure on Prime Minister Mario Monti, former Italian premier Berlusconi is back in the headlines. Are his political escapades those of a senile billionaire or is he seriously thinking of returning to power?
On Tuesday afternoon in Rome, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi were sitting at a table with a few close associates. Monti, alarmed by Berlusconi's recent statements, which were sometimes threatening and sometimes confused, was seeking clarity. At the European Union summit in Brussels, which begins on Thursday, he planned to implore Germany and the other northern euro-zone members to make concessions to the crisis-hit Southern European countries. It will be a tough task.
Monti said that in such a sensitive and decisive moment, Italy's parliament must stand behind the government.
Sure, Berlusconi reassured his counterpart. He says that it would be a "catastrophe" if the government now lost the confidence of the parliament, even though almost 80 percent of voters are against supporting Monti. But, he said, he and his party will stand by Monti out of a "sense of responsibility."
Afterwards, Berlusconi headed to parliament straight away. "We have eaten well," he said to reporters as he made his exit from the government building, the Palazzo Chigi. But he struck a different tone with the parliamentarians. Monti's plans appeared "unclear" to him, he said. In the meantime, he said, one must, however, continue to stand by Monti. Berlusconi claims that he "spoke with Brussels," adding that people there had said if Monti were to fall it would be a "catastrophe."
Addressing discontents in his party's ranks, he proposed a cheeky counter model for European politics: a euro-zone minus Germany, the country that blocks everything. Then, the European Central Bank could provide Italy and other countries in need with enough liquidity to lead them out of the crisis. Berlusconi issued Monti a thinly veiled threat, saying that if Monti does not succeed in persuading the German chancellor to change course at the Brussels summit, he would be held accountable. That would mean new elections in October.
What is going on? Is this the senile chatter of a nearly 76-year-old billionaire, who was forced to leave office in disgrace last November? Or is Berlusconi seriously thinking about a comeback?
"Give me 51 percent of the vote and I will lead our country out of crisis," Berlusconi said a few days ago at a youth meeting of his party, People of Freedom (PdL), to a standing ovation.
Too Many Sex Scandals
Even though Berlusconi has become the laughing stock of Europe, he still leads the Italian parliament's largest group, meaning that he must be taken seriously. Many grumble and complain about him in secret, but Berlusconi still holds the reins. He distributes positions and removes them when he feels like it. He is also extremely rich. According to Forbes magazine's list of the 25 richest Europeans, he has a fortune of $9 billion. Thanks to his money, his party enjoys abundant resources and he has largely financed their highly professional and successful election campaigns. Many people in the upper echelons of politics, the economy and the media owe Berlusconi favors. For nearly two decades, he has determined the course of Italian politics. He has been prime minister four times. Is he now seeking a fifth term?
Most pundits in Rome -- including both supporters and opponents -- believe that's unlikely. Berlusconi's chances of returning to the Palazzo Chigi are slim. He's had too many sex scandals, faced too many lawsuits and issued too many tailor-made laws designed to protect him from justice. In the end it was all too much, too distasteful.
At the moment, only 17 percent of Italians would vote for him and his party. A brilliant campaign with promises and handouts for everyone could certainly double that result. Berlusconi has achieved victory the same way several times before. But even that would no longer be enough. His time is over, and he knows it. Berlusconi also knows that he is still far from safe. Hence he must remain in politics and cultivate a high profile, to show that he still has the power to damage his opponents.
Politics over Prison
Berlusconi entered politics at the start of the 1990s for two reasons. He needed to save his -- still small -- media empire from financial and legal trouble and protect himself from the grasp of prosecutors and judges. "If I don't go into politics, they will throw me in jail and drive me into bankruptcy," he supposedly revealed to prominent Italian journalists. Long-time associates have also confirmed this version of events.
The gamble paid off. His television station flourished, because with Berlusconi as prime minister every industrialist was practically forced to place their ads there. He managed to sit out some of his legal problems -- some of the charges fell under the statute of limitations after spending years working their way through the courts -- while others were solved through changes to the law, pushed through by Berlusconi's parliamentary majority. Some of the changes involved lower penalties for accounting irregularities, while others involved rejecting a certain judge or shortening the statute of limitations for certain offences. In most cases, one person profited: Silvio Berlusconi.
His only problem is that he did not manage to take care of all the ongoing proceedings against him. He is still at risk of spending his later years in jail because of cases involving alleged slush funds in the Caribbean, allegations that he had sex with a minor and supposed abuse of power. His media empire has also been going downhill since he left power.
Those issues, according to analysts, keep him in politics. He draws attention to himself by making suggestions, some of which are dubious. He needs to make people afraid of his remaining political power. That's why he spoke this week about the lessons from the last election defeat, citing three studies that looked at the inclinations of former PdL voters. They revealed that 54 percent of them did not vote, 10 percent voted for the popular Five Star protest movement of comedian Beppe Grillo and only 36 percent remained in the Berlusconi camp. However, no one, he pointed out, said that they wouldn't vote for the PdL again if they were to offer convincing candidates and platforms. There is still a reservoir that can be tapped.
The best way to do that now, in Italy just like everywhere else, is with cheap anti- European propaganda. If the euro has only brought higher prices and higher taxes, then Berlusconi says one can "think about withdrawing from the euro." Voicing that idea, according to him, is "not blasphemy." It's quite the opposite, he says, because the austerity measures being pushed by the German chancellor will only drive Italy further into a downward spiral and deep recession. Practically in campaign mode already, Berlusconi says that Monti should finally stop the march in the wrong direction.
Most Italians see it exactly the same way. And if Monti cannot persuade Europe to change its direction at the EU summit -- which seems the likely outcome -- then "Merkel's helper," as Monti has been dubbed, will become a little less popular at home -- and a little more dependent on Silvio Berlusconi.
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