Silvio Berlusconi, 85, tipped for one final tilt at Italy’s top job

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  • Silvio Berlusconi
    Silvio Berlusconi
    Italian politician (1936)
  • Antonio Tajani
    Antonio Tajani
    Italian politician
  • Matteo Salvini
    Italian journalist and politician (1973)
 Forza Italia President Silvio Berlusconi arrives to cast his vote for the mayoral elections in Milan, Italy on October 3, 2021 - Anadolu
Forza Italia President Silvio Berlusconi arrives to cast his vote for the mayoral elections in Milan, Italy on October 3, 2021 - Anadolu

All political lives end in failure unless, apparently, you are Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy’s presidential elections in January are likely the last chance for the larger-than-life octogenarian billionaire, and his supporters are hoping he will cap off his extraordinary, scandal-plagued career with the ultimate accolade of seeing him in the country's top post.

“It would be a dream,” Antonio Tajani, deputy leader of Mr Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia party, told the Telegraph. “A lot of us have asked him [to run]. When you bring up the subject with him, he just smiles.”

Mr Berlusconi, 85, holds the record as Italy’s longest-serving prime minister. He’s been in office three times, and before politics he made billions in real estate and TV broadcasting, and turned AC Milan into the world’s most successful football club.

Originally a template for other businessmen-turned-politicians like Donald Trump, Mr Berlusconi now presents himself as the elder statesman within Italy's right-wing bloc, which is dominated by firebrand populists like Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni.

 Italian leader of Forza Italia party and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, gestures during the presentation of the book 'Madri' (Mothers) of Myrta Merlino in Rome, Italy, 20 January 2016 - Shutterstock
Italian leader of Forza Italia party and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, gestures during the presentation of the book 'Madri' (Mothers) of Myrta Merlino in Rome, Italy, 20 January 2016 - Shutterstock

These days, Mr Berlusconi hardly ever appears in public, preferring to communicate via video and audio messages, or written interviews.

Mr Berlusconi's health has been failing at least since 2016, when he underwent open heart surgery. Last year, he was hospitalised for coronavirus, and came out saying he narrowly escaped death.

Appearing at a conference in Brussels in October, he looked tanned and on good form, but his hearing seemed impaired as he struggled with questions during a press conference.

Mr Tajani described him as “an extraordinary captain of industry, a great man of sport … and a great political leader,” who was capable, in his heyday, of forging close ties with the likes of Tony Blair, George W Bush and Vladimir Putin.

“He is certainly one of Italy’s most distinguished personalities,” he insisted.

But Mr Berlusconi, the man who once called former US President Barack Obama “suntanned”, accused Germans of Holocaust denial, and claimed Chinese communists used to boil babies, is also a byword for scandal, gaffes, and run-ins with the law.

Many wonder if he would be fit for a role that carries high responsibilities.

Italys Interior Minister and deputy PM Matteo Salvini attends on July 9, 2019 the closure of Europe's one-time biggest asylum seeker and migrants reception centre in Mineo, southern Sicily. - Andreas Solaro/AFP
Italys Interior Minister and deputy PM Matteo Salvini attends on July 9, 2019 the closure of Europe's one-time biggest asylum seeker and migrants reception centre in Mineo, southern Sicily. - Andreas Solaro/AFP

Presidents have a lot of ceremonial duties, but step in whenever there is a political crisis, a fairly frequent occurrence in Rome. They act as kingmakers to any new government, they oversee the judiciary and are party to sensitive intelligence and defence matters.

With Mr Berlusconi, Italy would gain a head of state with a criminal record, thanks to his 2013 conviction for tax fraud. He would also be a president on trial, as he is still facing criminal charges related to the infamous “bunga bunga” affair, which he denies.

The case saw the former premier indicted for soliciting sex from an underage prostitute known as “Ruby the Heart Stealer”. He was cleared on appeal, but he was put on trial again, before three separate courts, on suspicion he bribed defence witnesses.

One trial ended with an acquittal in October, two are still pending.

Nevertheless, his fans insist his bid for the presidency - which carries a seven-year mandate - is serious.

Presidents are elected in a secret ballot by around 1,000 national and regional lawmakers. Voting is due to start around January 20 and the outcome is likely to be unpredictable until the last minute, influenced by backroom deals.

“He has a 50-50 chance to make it,” Gianfranco Rotondi, a veteran Forza Italia MP who was a minister in Berlusconi’s last government, in 2008-2011, told the Telegraph.

Former premier and M5S leader Giuseppe Conte said this week: "I respect Forza Italia's leader, but he is not our candidate."

taly's Prime Minister, Mario Draghi waves after addressing a press conference at the end of the G20 of World Leaders Summit at the convention center "La Nuvola" in the EUR district of Rome. - Andreas Solaro/AFP
taly's Prime Minister, Mario Draghi waves after addressing a press conference at the end of the G20 of World Leaders Summit at the convention center "La Nuvola" in the EUR district of Rome. - Andreas Solaro/AFP

Mr Berlusconi has not officially thrown his hat into the ring, but is campaigning behind the scenes. The right-wing bloc, consisting of Forza Italia plus Mr Salvini’s League and Mr Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, is expected to back him, at least initially.

The coalition commands around 450 votes, short of a majority.

Lorenzo Castellani, a political historian at Rome’s LUISS university, predicts that Mr Berlusconi’s candidacy will peter out. Nevertheless, he expects him to be “one of the kingmakers” in the presidential race.

“He is too smart to believe” he can get it for himself, Mr Castellani told the Telegraph.

Several names are circulating, but Mario Draghi, current prime minister and former European Central Bank chief, is seen as the frontrunner. Another credible option is for sitting president Sergio Mattarella to stay on, though he has made it clear he wants to retire.

Whatever the final outcome, Mr Tajani said Mr Berlusconi had no intention of leaving politics. “Why should he retire? He will always be the founding father of the centre-right."

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