Berlusconi hints at comeback in Italy

He has become an object of international derision, accused among other things of having sex with an underage prostitute. But Silvio Berlusconi is hinting that next spring he might once again seek to become Italy’s prime minister.

Such a turnabout would have seemed unthinkable a year ago, when Berlusconi was forced from office by the economic crisis that is plaguing his country. A leader known for parties that featured buxom young women became the subject of political obituaries after dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades.

Berlusconi’s poll numbers have sagged through the euro crisis. But he retains a core of support among Italy’s center-right voters, for whom there is no clear alternative. And his recent public comments about his future have given new fodder to the Italian tabloids while also raising alarm among European politicians who worry that his very presence in an election campaign could destabilize the Italian economy.

“What pushes me to remain active is a sense of responsibility toward my country and, perhaps, the bitterness of not having accomplished everything which I wanted,” he said in an interview last month with the Paris newspaper Liberation.

A Berlusconi comeback would bring a swirl of tabloid gossip that Italy has lacked since the technocrat Mario Monti came to power surrounded by a team of academics. Just last month, a prominent model claimed she was pregnant by Berlusconi, which he denies. His allies warn that prosecutors are poised to launch three politically motived criminal inquiries against him if he plunges into another campaign. And the trial on charges he paid for sex with an underage prostitute is underway. Berlusconi denies the allegations.

“Italy has always been a place where leaders last a very long time, where a leader was almost forever,” said Giampaolo Bettamio, a member of the Italian Senate who belongs to Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. “Berlusconi cannot avoid running in the next election.”

The possible spoiler

The possibility of Berlusconi’s return strikes fear into the hearts of many European politicians, especially the ones in control of the purse strings. Monti enjoys a respectful relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and she trusts him to work toward overhauling Italy’s economy, which Germans demand in exchange for financial help. Berlusconi, on the other hand, has questioned Italy’s future on the euro.

Monti has said that if Berlusconi were still in power, Italy’s borrowing costs would be far higher. But in a measure of Berlusconi’s enduring influence, Monti was forced to apologize for those comments after a public outcry. His unelected government depends on the parliamentary support of Berlusconi’s party.

“Berlusconi complicates the difficult process going on in Europe. Monti has given credibility back to Italy,” said Massimo Franco, a columnist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Berlusconi “could spoil the mood of a part of the country that is anti-Europe, anti-euro,” Franco said. “It will be a very difficult time, six months of madness.”

Across Europe, pro-austerity leaders are performing a tricky balancing act: winning democratic support for their often-painful measures while pushing for constitutional changes to ensure that countries cannot backslide if feisty leaders like Berlusconi are elected.

Many voters have rebelled against measures that are snipping at the safety net that has long protected the old, sick and unemployed. But leaders say that if steps are not taken to unite the 17-country euro zone around a common set of tight economic rules, the alternative — no euro at all — will be far more painful.

Anti-austerity mood

Some Italians, hit hard by new taxes and nostalgic for Berlusconi’s swaggering better days, would be happy to see him make a comeback.

“In Italy there are no other politicians who can give order to the country and put an end to the crisis,” said Alessandro Spizzichino, 34, a spice vendor at Rome’s bustling Campo dei Fiori morning market. “Berlusconi has a very strong influence at the European level and at the world level.”

For now, voters aren’t lining up behind austerity. In the Netherlands, they are flirting with a Socialist candidate in Wednesday’s general elections who has said he would ignore the fiscal discipline pact the previous government signed. In Italy, a new anti-euro political party has made regional inroads.

Monti has said he will not run in next year’s election, although some here hope he will stay on as the prime minister of another unity government if no party winds up with a clear majority.

Monti’s bland bureaucratic persona, honed by years as a commissioner in Brussels, has led some in Italy to fault him for bowing too often to La Merkel, as Germany’s chancellor is called here.

“Monti has been too demure with Merkel. Italy is one of the founders of Europe,” said Salvatore Tramontano, the head of the Rome office of the Giornale newspaper, owned by Berlusconi’s brother, which recently headlined its front page with “Fourth Reich” and a photograph of Merkel appearing to give a Nazi salute.

As Italy’s political season heats up, Monti has tried to push back at Germany, fed by domestic pressures. At a June summit, he forced Merkel to make small concessions in principle toward limiting Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs. The two leaders have remained cordial.

For now, Berlusconi’s opponents are simply shaking their heads that he has lasted so long.

“Three months ago, I would have said Berlusconi was out,” said Walter Veltroni, the former center-left mayor of Rome who ran against Berlusconi in 2008. “But he has his own interests to defend.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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