According to the last set of opinion polls, a right-wing coalition of parties fronted by Berlusconi probably will pick up the biggest block of seats in the Italian parliament. Berlusconi can't win a fourth stint as prime minister — a 2013 tax-fraud conviction bars him from holding public office until next year — but he's in pole position to be the country's kingmaker, a turn of events that seemed improbable seven years ago when Berlusconi was drummed out of power.
Berlusconi represents a familiar face at a troubled time in Italy. Although the country's economy grew modestly last year, it remains one of the most sluggish in Europe. The country's vast public debt remains an albatross around its neck. Close to a third of job-seeking Italians between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed.
Many Italians have voted with their feet. “When I emigrated 30 years ago, only a few Italians felt like that was the only option for them. Today, it is a common feeling,” wrote Luigi Zingales, a business professor at the University of Chicago. “In 2016, 124,000 Italians between the ages of 18 and 34 left the bel paese, roughly 2 percent of the population in that cohort. This is the reason why talented Italians populate American universities and firms all over the world: They find a way to emerge, which they cannot find at home.”
Amid the stagnation, an influx of migrants and refugees has led to rising nativism and a rightward lurch in the country's politics. Alongside Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the far-right Northern League, led by the charismatic Matteo Salvini, has emerged as a prominent faction in the elections — and could find its way into power.
In recent years, a succession of center-left governments failed to stem the disaffection of voters tired of elites, E.U. demands and centrist attempts at reform. After a high point in European elections in 2014, support for the ruling Democratic Party has collapsed nearly by half. The party and its allies are polling behind both Berlusconi's coalition and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, a Euroskeptic party that may claim the most votes in the election but is unlikely to join any other party to form a governing coalition.
“Italian politics are characterized by instability. In the past 30 years, there have been 13 different prime ministers in the country,” my colleague Adam Taylor noted. “The only one to serve a full five-year term since 1988 was Berlusconi, who has been prime minister for a little over nine total years during three separate stints. That's the longest time in office of any prime minister since the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.”
Like their counterparts across Western Europe, Italy's voters reflect a deepening disenchantment and fragmentation. A significant number — as much as a third — are undecided on the eve of the election. Many may not vote at all. Those who do may turn to anti-establishment parties such as the Five Star Movement, founded by irreverent comedian Beppe Grillo, which espouses a discordant set of beliefs — hostile to the European Union, ambivalent on immigration, libertarian on the economy, radically progressive on the environment.
“The movement was born out of the failure of both parties on the left and right,” the party's youthful leader, Luigi Di Maio, said to Today's WorldView last year. “The real problem in Italy is that there are many citizens who don't identify with these parties because they fail to defend the values and interests of different parts of the country.” Critics, though, point to Five Star's checkered record in municipal governance, the incoherence of its stated agenda and the inexperience of its newly minted politicians.
Any projected winner on Sunday may struggle to muster enough seats to form a majority. A grand coalition between center-right and center-left — similar to what is taking shape in Germany — may be the clearest path toward stability, but it will excite no one.
And so we return to Berlusconi. In 2016, he was often compared to President Trump, another unnaturally hued tycoon-turned-politico who is dogged by allegations of sexual indiscretion, locked in legal battles, loathed by the left — and yet simply impossible to put away. (Berlusconi’s lieutenants scoff at parallels to the U.S. president: “Berlusconi doesn't love it,” close ally Giovanni Toti told the New York Times. “It's a mistake to compare Trump to one of the most experienced statesmen in Europe.")
Berlusconi has embraced the role of the steady hand, deploying the Italian phrase for “used but in good condition,” as journalist Rachel Donadio wrote in the Atlantic. He has campaigned on something of a populist platform, supporting the removal of hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants while promising cash handouts to needy Italians. It’s a profoundly opportunistic pitch, but one unlikely to make any lasting difference.
“Berlusconi’s economic platform avoids any painful but necessary structural changes in favor of deficit-busting fiscal stimulus, gambling on a benevolent reaction from financial markets,” noted James Politi, the Rome bureau chief of the Financial Times. “If the center-left Democratic Party performs strongly enough, which is a big question mark, a grand coalition with Berlusconi might be in the cards. This may be the only hope for the modernization of the Italian economy to continue. But with Berlusconi still in the picture, any progress is likely to be halting and fragile.”
That's not anything new. “Berlusconi was the Pied Piper, playing his tune of optimism for 20 years without spurring reforms,” said Gianni Riotta of the Council on Foreign Relations. “[Center-left leaders] tried to innovate, only to be knifed by their own comrades. Salvini stirs fearsome ghosts of nationalism and hate. Grillo is the new champion of the old, backward country.”
But that cynicism may just be the perfect match for the despair and exhaustion of the electorate. “Berlusconi looked for amnesty and found something more important in many Italians,” columnist Ezio Mauro told Donadio. “Amnesia.”
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