The former prime minister, mired in scandal and largely blamed for Italy’s economic woes, appeared to be consigned to the annals of political history, yet it seems he should not be written off just yet.
In the United States, one’s political career might be over before one is able to click “Tweet.” Yet Berlusconi’s entire political career was steeped in controversy, and even when he finally stepped down in 2011, his reasons related to an inability to manage the nation’s fiscal problems rather than his criminal trials. In short, the man is a showman, a business mogul and a larger than life character who polarizes opinions wherever he goes.
Berlusconi has served four terms as Italian prime minister since 1994. During that time, he has faced a number of trials for fraud, corruption and having sex with minors; he has on numerous occasions been known to make public comments of a sexist, racist or homophobic nature, as well as making statements supporting former dictator Benito Mussolini, suggesting he was a good leader who was wise to side with Hitler.
While serving as prime minister, he changed laws that would protect him from various allegations by altering the statute of limitations on such charges or delaying trials for extensive periods. He has alleged links with the Italian mafia, was once castigated by Queen Elizabeth during a photo shoot for being too noisy, and called German Chancellor Angela Merkel words not fit to print in this publication.
Since leaving office, Berlusconi has not been short of things to keep him busy. As Italy’s sixth richest person, estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.9 billion in 2012, he has continued his role as a global entrepreneur. He is the owner and president of AC Milan, one of the world’s largest soccer teams. He is also CEO of Mediaset, the company that owns three of Italy’s seven national television channels, for which Berlusconi received much criticism while in office (it is generally looked down upon when the country’s leader essentially controls a major portion of the media). He has also found time to record an album of love songs, reviving his musical skills that once saw him working as a crooner on cruise ships.
It’s puzzling to imagine how someone like Berlusconi could have stayed in such a powerful position for so long. Perhaps more puzzling is the likelihood that he will return to some form of power after this weekend’s election. The dust has barely settled from his 2012 trial for tax evasion in which he was sentenced to four years in jail (a term he is unlikely to serve). His personal and political scandals must still be fresh in the memories of Italians, so one must wonder what is happening to bring about such a possibility.
The explanation lies in Italy’s current economic situation. Berlusconi’s failure to avoid economic crisis, along with his excessive spending and unimaginable mismanagement of the economy, have been little repaired by his successors.
The replacement government, headed by technocrat Mario Monti, has implemented widespread austerity reforms seen as necessary to get Italy back on track. As with much of Europe, taxes have risen, public jobs have been cut, and welfare spending has been drastically reduced.
The economic stagnation caused by the changes has left large numbers unemployed and industries struggling to survive. At the polls, the people may opt for any alternative to the current situation which could prove catastrophic for Italy and the Euro Zone.
Italy has the second largest debt obligation of all Euro countries behind Greece, and is the third largest economy. While Greece’s problems have been substantial, and threatened the stability of the euro, its effects pale in comparison to that of a collapsed Italy. If Angela Merkel disliked Berlusconi before (a sentiment she did not hide well), she will be even more strongly opposed to his involvement now.
Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom party may not be popular enough to dominate the coalition coming out of the election, but he may just walk away with enough power to influence decisions once again, and this gives Europe sufficient cause for concern.
He has already said he would seek to cut taxes and repay citizens the difference in what they have paid for the last year or so. Such lunacy has no place in a fragile economic climate that demands intelligent and calculated decisions rather than a short-sighted populist agenda that is more than likely a ruse for what would be another term of self-indulgence and malfeasance for Berlusconi.