Europe's Next Crisis? Silvio Berlusconi's Masterplan for Power

Silvio Berlusconi is back in top form. He's heaping flattery on the Italian people and telling political fairy tales just as the former prime minister did in the best of times. It may all seem a bit crude, but it is part of a savvy strategy that could deliver him success and create problems for all of Europe.
A savvy stragegy: Silvio Berlusconi sits as a guest on the television show "Porta a Porta" on public broadcaster RAI 1.

A savvy stragegy: Silvio Berlusconi sits as a guest on the television show "Porta a Porta" on public broadcaster RAI 1.

Foto: eidon photographers/ Demotix

Silvio Berlusconi is a man driven by fear, but also one whose political war coffers are flush with cash. He's in control of three TV stations and has hundreds of experts at shaping public opinion at his disposal. That's the starting point for Berlusconi's election campaign. Already, his campaign machine is running at full steam. And although this campaign can at times come across as imbecilic or insane, is actually the product of savvy media professionals. Pollsters measure the mood of the people every day and track what is and isn't working for the Berlusconi camp.

These days, the news they have to share is positive. Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) has gained three percentage points in the polls in recent days. Of course, so far only 17 percent of Italians say they are actually prepared to elect the former prime minister again. But that number could grow once the Berlusconi Show gets into full swing.

He will have to act fast though. Italian law limits the exposure of politicians on television during the 45 days leading up to an election, so Berlusconi only has until early January to convince Italians that he can deliver the brave new world he has promised. The big media push has to come now -- and Berlusconi is already hard at work.

Berlusconi 'Successes'

For days now, the news shows on his TV stations have been filled with reporting on the "successes" of the former prime minister and the mistakes and unfinished business of current Italian leader Mario Monti. On the popular Sunday afternoon show on the Berlusconi-owned Canale 5, Silvio appeared for close to 90 minutes. The female host dubbed the tête-à-tête an "interview," but she focused on catchwords that seemed to be tailor-made for her studio guest. "People on the streets are complaining about the burden of the property tax," she said, prompting the former prime minister to nod in agreement. Berlusconi then added that the complaints are justified because the tax has pushed many families into bitter poverty. He said he would abolish the tax immediately.

And what would he do about the cash shortfall repealing the tax would create for the state? No problem, Berlusconi answered -- modest new taxes on beer and spirits could do the trick. And at times when the host, who has worked for the Berlusconi station for 33 years and is friends with his daughter, missed an opportunity, Berlusconi got her back on track after the ad break. Some 2.5 million viewers tuned in -- largely younger people with an average level of education from economically weak southern Italy. In other words, Berlusconi voters.

The other half of his potential voters tend to be older Italians -- largely from the north and often women. His Rete 4 station is there to take care of this potential constituency. That station, too, featured an "interview" taped with the Silvio the Great inside his villa in Arcore. In the interview, the 76-year-old said he would finally clean up politics in Italy if he got elected.

Berlusconi's Trauma

Berlusconi isn't just stepping into the ring for fun, either. He has to. Today, Berlusconi is finding himself right back where he was in 1994 -- that is to say, in great danger. Back then, at the time he began his political career, his business empire was facing bankruptcy and he more or less had one foot in jail. He went into politics in order to rescue himself. It's something he himself and many of his confidants would later openly admit.

Today, with advertising revenues collapsing -- and not just because of the crisis -- his media empire is in trouble again. When Berlusconi governed the country, it was self-evident for major companies in the country to show preferential treatment to the prime minister's media channels when placing advertising. Ultimately it was a matter of securing government contracts and ensuring political support when these companies ran into problems. But those days ended last November when Berlusconi was forced to step down as prime minister.

The threat from the judiciary is just as acute today as it was back then. A verdict in the court case against Berlusconi for allegedly paying for sex with an underage Moroccan who went by the stage name "Ruby Rubacuore" (Ruby the Heartbreaker) is expected in February. At that point, the situation could get dicey. Political power may be the only thing left that Berlusconi can rescue himself with.

Fighting for Survival

The strategy in this fight for survival has been developed by a large, highly professional team, in numerous meetings. The group's aim is to transform Berlusconi's weaknesses into strengths. Take for example the scandal surrounding Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties that included dozens of young women. In strict and conservative Catholic Italy, that's not the kind of thing that goes over very well. No, Berlusconi said regretfully on television, that wasn't good -- and it was something he needed to apologize for. But he also added, "I felt so alone -- divorced from my wife, my mother had died and my sister and my children are always travelling somewhere in the world."

Then someone came along and promised to spice up the night's entertainment. Today the former prime minister says he knows it was a mistake. But he says things are going well again -- and that he has a new fiancée. She's almost 50 years Berlusconi's junior and he has known her for the past seven years. She was the head of a Silvio Berlusconi fan club and once chartered an airplane pulling a "Silvio, we miss you," banner that flew over his villa in Sardinia. Later, she personalized the action by changing the banner slightly to read: "Silvio, I miss you." That's was the business card that got her into his circles.

And Berlusconi can once again show that his private life is an orderly one. The calculus behind the move is that Italians will have no choice but to forgive him for his escapades.

The economic debacle he created during his last term in office is also skilfully spun. Today, the entrepreneur says the situation is serious. He blames the "austerity policies inflicted on the country by the Germans, who are egotistical and lack solidarity." He accuses Monti of following Berlin's orders subserviently. If elected, Berlusconi says he would put an end to that. He has also repeatedly flirted with the idea of Italy leaving the euro zone in order to score points with his supporters. Berlusconi argues that austerity savings, which come at the expense of the elderly and children, workers and companies, are unnecessary. It's the wrong path, he argues, instead arguing for measures that are painless. He wants to see tax cuts for everyone and loans issued to companies so that they can get back on track to growth.

Berlusconi says La Dolce Vita is possible in Italy again, just as it was in the old days, but only if he returns to power. And what does it mean that these ideas are also backed by economics experts on daily basis on television -- Berlusconi television? Would it then be wrong to cast another vote for him?

72 Sit-Ups a Day

After all, Berlusconi has promised he will rescue Italy. He only has to be given the power to do it. And he has made sure to show that he has the strength to do it, claiming to have the constitution of a 30-year-old and to do 72 sit-ups a day. And though he is fabulously wealthy and could enjoy his twilight years either on the beaches of Sardinia or on his yacht somewhere else, he has been at pains to give the impression that people have been calling for his return.

Viewed in sober terms, it all seems like a ludicrous spectacle: an old man who is driven by fear and appears to be "sex obsessed" to some and "confused" to others, who has had facelifts and a hair transplant promising the world to voters.

Berlusconi won't win the election. That prospect appears hopeless. But all he needs is to grab a modest amount of power. In order to secure his own interests politically, he just needs enough strength to be able to stir up trouble. In a country like Italy with a multiparty, parliamentary system, one that often sees members shift alliances within the course of a legislative term, a politician with 20 to 25 percent of voter support can carry considerable clout. If the left succeeds in governing, then he could lead the conservative opposition. That would put him in a position of being able to block or delay legislation or even to leverage a law that would again protect him from facing justice.

That, of course, would be a tragedy for Italy -- and possibly for all of Europe.

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