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.”