Berlusconi’s background as a media mogul, not to mention his adventurous private life, aroused lasting suspicions. And his political style — defined by a certain directness in appealing to voters and a total disregard for the liturgy of politics — anticipated contemporary “populism.”
But the world is now welcoming back a new Berlusconi. No longer able to hold public office — a law bars people who have been sentenced to more than two years in jail — his name will nevertheless be on the ballot, written in large block letters in the logo of “Forza Italia,” when voters go to the polls next month. If Italians back his center‐right coalition, they will effectively be choosing him as its puppet‐master.
It’s easy enough to see why Italians may be drawn to Berlusconi out of nostalgia (though his tenure was by no means impeccable). What’s perhaps more surprising is that European partners and international observers seem to have developed a new sympathy for the scandal‐ridden former prime minister, whom they see as a safe card in next month’s election.
While he occasionally embraced some uncompromising, conservative positions (most recently on immigration, after a Nigerian man was accused of killing a young woman in Macerata), Berlusconi has for the most smoothed out his coalition partners’ rough edges. Under his influence, for example, the far‐right Northern League has stopped calling for Italy to leave the eurozone. And his attacks on the populist 5Star Movement — which he has called “a job center for the unemployable” — showed his willingness to confront that other homo novus of politics, Beppe Grillo.
What plays in Berlusconi’s favor is that, more than anything, what everyone wants from Italy is stability.
Foreign investors own 40 percent of Italian public debt — which stands at about €2.2 trillion — and have nothing to gain from further turmoil. The rest of the country’s debt is domestically owned, meaning domestic investors too, are interested in stability. Italy is a country of savers, with a high home ownership rate (70 percent) and a rapidly aging population.
In this context, Berlusconi — who has claimed that Italy should comply with the fiscal compact and cut taxes, but without raising the deficit — is starting to look like the “reliable” choice. His conflicts of interest, for once, strengthen this impression.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Berlusconi’s rhetoric may have been over the top, but the policies he put in place never were. This perhaps cost Italy the radical reforms it badly needed, but in times of heated populism, it could be reassuring.
When it comes to economic policy, Berlusconi was never very effective. His governments (2001–2006 and 2007–2009) tended to increase the budget deficit, before promoting cuts in their later years under market pressure. He may have promised to deregulate the Italian economy in every one of his electoral campaigns, but he didn’t achieve a permanent cut in red tape. He did cut some taxes, but selectively — he took aim at the death tax, and the property tax — and he didn’t show any Reaganesque impulse to take on productivity and the private sector. He attempted to challenge the power of the trade unions, too, but can hardly claim much success there either.