Former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, tainted by scandals and corruption, has tossed his hat back into the political ring, following Mario Monti's announced resignation. But does Italy still care?
“Now Berlusconi has resurfaced and wants to throw us back five years.” In an interview with national television, Pier Ferdinando Casini, who heads the Italian Christian Democrats, reacted as critically as was to be expected, following his political opponent's announcement on Saturday (09.12.2012) that he would lead the conservatives into next year's elections.
Italy's political landscape changed over the weekend. The non-partisan economist Mario Monti - who has held the job of prime minister for the last 13 months – announced that he would step down. Berlusconi's Party “Popolo della Libertà” (PdL) had withdrawn its support for Monti´s government in both houses of parliament.
Monti announced he would resign once an important stability and budgetary reform package had been passed. That could happen before Christmas. Elections would then take place in February or March of 2013.
Few think Berlusconi can win
Most observers regard it as very unlikely that voters will elect the 76-year old Berlusconi for a fifth term as prime minister. According to recent opinion polls, he is likely to muster some 15 percent of votes, trailing behind Pier Luigi Bersani of the Christian Social “Partito Democratico” (PD). Bersani is projected to gather double that amount of votes.
Rudolf Lill, an expert on Italy and historian from Cologne, dismissed Berlusconi's announcement as “irrational". He told Deutsche Welle that "given what Berlusconi has done to Italy and to what extent the country has improved since, he is unlikely to achieve the overthrow.” Lill concedes that Berlusconi does continue to exert a certain fascination on a part of the electorate, but Lill is convinced that “Berlusconi's time has come to an end.”
Different political leadership
This year, the left-of-center PD held elaborate primaries with millions of participants and Bersani emerged as the winner.
Berlusconi's PdL took a different course. Primaries were repeatedly delayed due to internal power struggles, mainly initiated by Berslusconi himself, who finally crowned himself as the candidate.
“The center-left party has democratic structures while “Popolo della Libertà”'s structures are authoritarian”, Rudolf Lill told Deutsche Welle. Berlusconi is the chairman of the PdL, or People of Freedom party, which he founded several years ago. He is now using it as a springboard for his political platform in the elections.
Other 'new' old men
Experts expect a populist campaign fought by Berlusconi's media empire. Politically, however, the multi-billionaire has long been overtaken by others. Italy-expert Lill calls the 61-year old Pier Luigi Bersani, for example, “the new old man”.
Opponents accuse Bersani of being too involved with communist trade unions. Lill disagrees: “He has managed to break free, making him a convincing democratic party leader of the strongest Italian party.”
Bersani, Lill adds, likes to smoke cigarillos and comes across as quite jovial and down-to-earth. He is also known for his strange habit of making use of imaginative metaphors.
Fear of temporary paralysis
Lill is convinced that Bersani would make a good successor to Monti, able to follow through on the prime minister's economic reforms.
For now, however, some fear temporary paralysis. Should Mario Monti resign this month, Italy may experience political instability.
This, in part, was triggered by Beppe Grillo, a provocative, nationally known, comedian and blogger. His populist Web movement “Movimento 5 Stelle” (5 Star Movement) has already made some local electoral gains.
According to opinion polls, Grillo could muster some 20 percent of the vote, putting him in second place after Bersani.
Historian Lill says Grillo is “anti-political.” If he does do well in the elections, he could make life difficult for the government.
But overall, Lill concedes, democracy is alive and kicking. The country is politically and democratically more active than often assumed, as demonstrated by the primaries in Bersani's party. “These primaries led to a good result," said Lill. "That may force compromise, but it seems that the politicians in the leftist camp are finally prepared to compromise.”