Silvio Berlusconi: The Unlikely Symbol Of Moderate Political Leadership

How Forza Italia's leader got back on track and became a symbol of political moderatism and responsible government.

European People’s PartyCC BY 2.0

How Silvio Berlusconi got back on track and became a symbol of political moderatism and responsible government.

When at the end of 2018 Silvio Berlusconi’s political party Forza Italia (FI) lost the center-right leadership to Matteo Salvini’s Lega — a defeat that cost him also many crucial MPs in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, few were the analysts that predicted the so-called Cavaliere could return to his former political glory.

One year later, Forza Italia was hit by an even deeper crisis: the national-conservative party Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) led by Giorgia Meloni, became the fourth Italian political group and consequently downgraded Forza Italia as the fifth one. Berlusconi was seen at the extreme margins of the national political landscape, unable to renew his own party and easily surpassed by new, right-wing populist forces that were more capable of representing the social cleavage of both center and far-right voters.

Even on the moderate front, with Matteo Renzi’s newly founded liberal party Italia Viva and Carlo Calenda’s liberal and progressive Azione, Berlusconi began losing ground.

Still, it wasn’t just the party which was unable to provide concrete solutions for its electorate: more than anything, voters felt they were lacking trust towards politicians like Berlusconi, considered the symbol of a decadent political class that had to be overhauled.

Fast-forward to June 2020, Forza Italia is back as the fourth political force in the country, rebounding from an all-time low 6.4% approval rating dated September 2019 to today’s almost 15%. FI is thus indispensable in the event of the formation of a center-right government with a far-right majority: according to today’s polls, in fact, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia would not obtain a majority without il Cavaliere’s helping hand. However, more than the party’s political position in the present political spectrum, the image of Berlusconi has suddenly been restored to the pomps of the past, bringing back to political life — some could argue if he has never been politically dead — the 86-old veteran.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown Italians that a responsible, moderate leadership is what the country needs to recover from its economic and social woes. The public’s general feeling of frustration towards the government has left room for the desire of maintaining such a political attitude, and the support that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Silvio Berlusconi have been receiving over the past few months is a clear sign of the recent change of heart Italians had. Populism has been rejected and is no longer the means to save a country from a state of complete dismay.

The turning point

Without any doubt, the coronavirus crisis represented the decisive moment that re-defined both Berlusconi and Forza Italia in modern Italian politics. However, this ‘moderate turn’ firstly began between the summer and the autumn of 2019, when Il Cavaliere, still weak at the national level, had nonetheless reacquired new status following his MEP election for the European People’s Party (EPP) at the last European elections.

Building on such momentum, Forza Italia followed its leader’s advice to redefine its political line. First and foremost, Berlusconi modified his public speaking register, putting himself in a political niche on the right side of the political spectrum, away from the incessant polemic tones used by Salvini and Meloni.

To do so, he tapped into his political backpack bringing back a sober and Europeanist trait to characterize his political choices. To explain this with examples: he endorsed former President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi as possible future Italian Prime Minister, and he openly confronted Salvini and Meloni’s anti-EU rhetoric, thus beginning to regain consensus from moderate voters.

Still, Forza Italia‘s approval ratings weren’t moving from the 6-7% mark with ease, getting into March 2020 with similar rates as in 2018-2019.

The turning point, sadly as it may sound, has been the recent global health crisis. Eyeing the opportunity, Berlusconi brushed up all his political skills of an experienced and pro-EU politician — a move that was possible thanks to his team of moderate and centrist aides, in particular the former President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.

The strategy mainly involved doing the opposite of what Salvini and Meloni had been doing during the first weeks of the pandemic and therefore aligning his positions to those of the current government.

Gianfranco Rotondi, a member of the Chamber of Deputies and Berlusconi’s political aid, recently told the press that Il Cavaliere has decisively modified his attitude towards Conte and his political decisions.

Rotondi said that although Forza Italia‘s leader initially considered Conte just as a ‘puppet’ of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, Berlusconi has later appreciated his political shift to a more moderate one. He began admiring not only his political commitment and mediating skills but, similarly important, his clothing style and his appearance, one that properly belongs to a leader that knows what to say and how to do it.

This has been translated into a new political approach that seeks unity within the center-right field and in a series of acts of approval in relation to the government’s actions.

For instance, Berlusconi has recently called for a national and center-right coalition in view of Italy’s Republic Day on June 2. He has then voted against the motion to remove Roberto Gualtieri, the current Minister of Economy and Finances, and has endorsed the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) loan as a means to defend Italy’s interests. Furthermore, he refrained from using harsh manners towards the Minister of Justice, Alfonso Bonafede, who was just recently accused of controversial leadership appointments for state-owned companies.

However, the main factor that led Forza Italia to gain points in approval ratings over the past months, has been, yet again, Berlusconi’s pro-European stance.

Notwithstanding accusations from both the government and the opposition against the European Union for not having helped Italy enough during the initial phase of the pandemic, Berlusconi demonstrated almost a total support to the bloc, as well as to Italy’s government choices on the latest developments regarding the MES and a potential Recovery Fund, distancing himself from both Salvini and Meloni’s positions.

Speaking to NewsMediaset, Berlusconi said that “during national emergencies, one must have institutional sense, offer contributions and ideas to the government in charge, even if it is not the government that one likes. I have put aside all political controversies to help the government and the whole country.

One would argue that having Antonio Tajani by his side made Berlusconi more appealing to center-right and far-right voters, and this might be true: Tajani, an accomplished and well-respected politician, helped crafting the new image of both Forza Italia and Berlusconi, and convinced the masses to take another chance on him.

This way, both the politician and his party have gained a fresh political identity and created for themselves a role within the opposition and the government. And who knows if the support to Conte cannot really go beyond the Covid-19 crisis.

A strategic shift?

Berlusconi has shaped Italian politics for more than two decades and he does not seem ready to quit. During his past tenures, he has forged a public image that divided Italians like any other: his private matters have molded the figure of an entrepreneur and of a politician who has favored and will keep favoring his personal interests over the ones of his own country.

Such mainstream view would thus lead us to believe that Berlusconi’s recent turn from the right to the center is merely a strategic one: his evolution was set up to regain power, to bring back the attention of the people (and of the media) on his political moves, and to give him once again a voice in Italy’s public affairs.

Still, as Gianni Letta — one of his long-time friends and closest aides — once said, Berlusconi has always seen in the populist forces of Lega and Fratelli d’Italia the first cause of Italy’s decline. This made him progressively distance himself from peers like Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini, and pushed him to portray himself as the last example of center-right moderatism and Europeanism.

However, a recent event could hint that Berlusconi’s political metamorphosis is not founded on honest and sincere beliefs. Just a couple of days ago, Forza Italia has announced a unitarian front with Lega and Fratelli d’Italia to run in Italy’s regional elections in Autumn 2020. As cunning as it may be, Berlusconi has immediately capitalized on his recent success to pursue his goal of reforming an alliance with the right on which he could build potential future government coalitions.

This may be the single standing example of the political cleverness of Silvio Berlusconi, second to none, and which still works pretty well for a man that is almost in his nineties.

The reasoning that Forza Italia is grounding its maneuver on is seeking to achieve results in the long run. The postponement of the referendum on cutting MPs, a thorny issue within the Italian Parliament, created a difficult environment to allow for the adoption of the other crucial reform of a new Italian electoral system. Yet, in September the issue will inevitably be brought back on the table, and things within the right-wing ranks will have changed, at least in terms of voting proportions. Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni will not be able to win by themselves and will need Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi to do so.

Moreover, it looks like the ideological makeover undertaken by Berlusconi has been carried out also to attract voters on the left in view of his intention to run for President in 2022.

In a nutshell, this new tone and political strategy are all part of a bigger plan that will unfold farther in time, something that only crafty and shrewd people like Berlusconi, individuals characterized by a strong political instinct, can design and pursue. 

From personal interests related to his business to politics to football — his new team, AC Monza, was promoted to Serie B and is now trying to re-enter Serie A, Berlusconi is once again telling us all that he is back in the game, and he making sure that everyone knows that.

But why are we all so intrigued by this man and his political endeavors again and again? British journalist Hannah Roberts may have an answer: “Stunted by two decades of Berlusconi-dominated politics and the media, an era of casual sexism and tawdry television game shows, Italy is plagued by an ingrained societal machismo, which — I add — won’t be easily removed from our subconscious and thus from our political behavior.

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