As recently as last year, Italians had written off Silvio Berlusconi as a political relic. But onstage for a talk show this month ahead of March 4 elections, the 81-year-old media tycoon and former prime minister appeared like a man reborn.
by Michael Birnbaum / Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report
ROME — “How do I look?” he asked the studio audience as he settled in on a cushioned chair. “Just fine!” a woman shouted back.
Berlusconi was forced out as Italy’s leader in 2011 amid a debt crisis. He can’t hold office until next year because of a tax-fraud conviction. But those missteps have receded, as have memories of the bawdy “bunga bunga” parties he frequented — Berlusconi called them “elegant dinners” — and he was cleared of charges of paying for sex with a minor.
Now, the man who converted a media empire into a political force long before Donald Trump’s ascension to the U.S. presidency is making a comeback as a potential kingmaker.
Much about this encore performance is unlikely. Surgeons have buffed the battle scars and wrinkles off Berlusconi’s face, giving him an improbably youthful air. He remains savvy, parrying tough questions on television with ease. More surprising for a man who symbolizes Italy’s political past: In a too-split-to-call election, the right-wing coalition he heads is thought to have the best chance of garnering the 40 percent of votes needed for a governing majority.
“We’ve won the election, haven’t we?” Berlusconi crowed on the late-night show when interviewer Bianca Berlinguer noted that he had captured 42 percent of the votes of viewers who called in to express their views on his message.
That message — a red-meat program of slashing taxes, booting out immigrants and restoring Italy’s standing in the world — drew repeated applause from the studio audience, which included members of the youth movement of Berlusconi’s party.
The reception underscored the remarkable turnaround Berlusconi has experienced. His personal approval rating hovers near 24 percent, according to an average compiled by polling firm Termometro Politico — far from its onetime heights. But as his younger rivals have crashed into irrelevance, Berlusconi has maneuvered back into the spotlight with a veteran’s agility.
“His charisma overcomes his age,” said Pietrangelo Massaro, 34, the coordinator of Berlusconi’s campaign in Rome’s working-class Ostiense neighborhood. “The evolution of the skin and the face doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change what’s in his head.”
Now Berlusconi, who declined a request for an interview, has ushered his Forza Italia party into a grouping with two smaller right-wing parties in a bid to see an ally installed as premier. One partner, the Northern League, wants to close Italy’s borders to most immigrants and campaigns against Islam. The founders of the other, Brothers of Italy, were members of the successor to Italy’s Fascist Party.
The coalition has promised big raises in pensions, a guaranteed minimum income of $1,250 a month for working-age adults, a steep tax cut and tough measures against economic migrants. Ever attentive to interest groups, Berlusconi has even tailored a message for animal lovers, often making appearances with Dudù, his white poodle.
“Berlusconi is there because others have failed. He’s a survivor,” said Massimo Franco, a columnist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper who has tangled with the politician for decades.
In a galling turnabout for the leaders of the European Union who once saw Berlusconi as a danger to the bloc and the euro zone, he now appears to be Brussels’s best bet in comparison with his strongest rivals. The surging populist Five Star Movement, which has questioned Italy’s E.U. membership, seems set to capture more seatsin Parliament than any other single party, but it has previously rejected the coalitions that would be required to govern. Meanwhile, Berlusconi has tempered the most strident anti-E.U. rhetoric of his right-wing allies.
He “can now present himself as a champion of the European alliance,” Franco said.
For years, Berlusconi had more friends outside the E.U. orbit than in it — and he has not disavowed them. In October, he gave Russian President Vladimir Putin, an old buddy, a 65th-birthday gift of a duvet bearing an image of the two men shaking hands. He has also said he regrets allowing the 2011 NATO mission that deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who also was a friend of Berlusconi’s.
The goodwill with Putin remains. “Russia is a fundamental partner for the stabilization of the world,” said Paolo Romani, an Italian senator and close ally of Berlusconi’s.
But Berlusconi has not let that history impede his present strategy. His fortunes revived after his party’s biggest mainstream rival, the center-left Democratic Party, imploded in the past year following then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s failed referendum bid for constitutional changes to strengthen his office. The Democratic Party captured 41 percent of the vote in 2014 European elections. Now it is polling around 23 percent.
Berlusconi “says what people want him to say,” said Walter Veltroni, a founder of the Democratic Party. “The left is divided, and that has opened a road to him, and he is taking it.”
Berlusconi confidants say he has embraced his revived prospects. He took a few days off the trail this month, complaining of fatigue. But one recent day, he put in formidable hours — a morning flight to Rome, followed by a 75-minute speech to a business group and the evening talk-show interview, after which he peeled out in his armored Volkswagen Passat after 11 p.m.
“He is convinced that he has a magic wand and he can lift the country again,” said Vittorio Feltri, the founder and editorial director of Libero, a pro-Berlusconi newspaper in Milan.
Feltri said Berlusconi had initially resisted comparisons to Trump, deriding the president as an amateurish newcomer who was better at firing up his base than building workable coalitions. Lately, though, Feltri said, the Italian leader has softened his opinion.
“Some traits deserve to be appreciated,” Berlusconi said this week. Trump is “not scared of being an alien in Washington’s bureaucracy.” But he warned that “these kinds of impulsive reactions are not sufficiently thought-out.”
Some analysts say that Italy is in the middle of a political transition, as old parties crumble before new ones have matured enough to capture governing majorities. Few politicians have succeeded in inspiring the public or winning its trust.
In a field of unpalatable choices, Berlusconi and his party have coasted through this campaign on memories of past successes. Defeats, such as the skyrocketing public debt and the wobbliness that nearly forced Italy to request an IMF bailout in 2011, have faded as political issues.
“It’s like an old football player who has scored some goals. Renzi never scored any goals,” said Gianluca Borrelli, the head of Termometro Politico. “Berlusconi doesn’t have the trust and confidence of the Italian people he had in the past. He doesn’t have big popularity anymore. But he’s not unpopular.”
Whether that is enough will be seen March 4. For now, Berlusconi is riding high — especially on television, where he had his recent talk-show audience in the palm of his hand.
“I understand the rhythm of television,” Berlusconi said with a smile, as he chided the interviewer for trying to interrupt him. “I taught it to many.”