The meeting of the center-right leaders was set for Friday, but the conclusions seemed to have been already decided on Thursday. There was a concise but exhaustive message from Matteo Salvini: “The center-right is cohesive and committed in its support for Berlusconi. We don’t accept ideological vetoes from the left.”
“We can guarantee the cohesion of the coalition,” said his ideological sister Georgia Meloni, without mentioning names. These are tokens of fealty, of course—words that Berlusconi himself demanded from the two leaders on Wednesday evening, after he was not at all appeased by the uncertain tones and caution of the Lega.
But they are also words that do not allow a course reversal if the FI leader will insist on trying his luck in the elections. There are few doubts about his intentions. The full-page advertisement that came out on Thursday in the Giornale di Famiglia reminds one of the well-known video ad from 1994, that of Berlusconi’s “descent into the field”: “A good and generous person. The father of five children. A friend to everyone, enemy to no one,” even “the number one publisher in Italy and the most liberal one”; and so on, listing his merits and records. The conclusion: “Who else is like him?”
To be clear, we don’t mean that Friday’s summit was supposed to bring the final word. There was no longer any need. If, until Thursday, Berlusconi had to decide whether to take a “step forward,” since Thursday he can only take a “step back,” with a renunciation that would sound like a retreat. This can’t be excluded. The ego of the man does not allow for embarrassment in the vote on the parliament floor, and the numbers aren’t looking good. “It looks like a very complicated undertaking to me,” admits Vittorio Sgarbi, who has been on the phone for days trying to gather votes for Berlusconi’s candidature. He needs 70, and he has gotten no more than 10 so far.
Osvaldo Napoli, from Coraggio Italia, who has 31 votes for his candidature, is even more explicit: “Either we start from scratch, or on January 24 there is a risk that each parliamentary group will go its own way.” If he’s certain of defeat, “the Knight” will probably withdraw, but only at the very last moment and after having tried everything. Not on the eve of the elections, but on the threshold of the fourth round of voting, the one where he would have to expose himself to the final count. From the point of view of the paralysis of the whole system, nothing changes: in both cases, either a surrender in extremis or a defeat in the floor vote, all paths will remain blocked until the boulder named Berlusconi is removed.
Then, provided that Berlusconi doesn’t pull off a surprise win, the real negotiations will begin, and at that point everything will become frantic. Matteo Renzi foresees that the election will be finalized on January 27. He may be only slightly wrong. Salvini seems to want to insist on an option B from the center-right, as Giorgia Meloni would like. Gianni Letta, Berlusconi’s long-term advisor nicknamed the “chamberlain of Arcore,” is of the opposite opinion, favoring a broad consensus pick. He showed up at the funeral of David Sassoli and invoked the memory of the late President of the European Parliament to suggest a different course: “If the climate that arises as we remember David is the one that gets the Great Electors to vote for the president, it would be a great lesson and David’s contribution to peace and development.” It is possible that for once, Berlusconi and his eternal advisor are at odds. It is also possible that, secretly, even “the Knight” considers a president elected by everyone a second-best possibility—second obviously only to his own election.
Renzi agrees: “I totally agree with Letta.” The IV leader has been in contact with Salvini for days. If the two will proceed in agreement, once Berlusconi takes a step back in one way or another, the most important signal will come from them. Renzi is being cautious. He is advising the FI leader to avoid the contest, albeit indirectly: “If I were the center-right, I would avoid going to the runoff.” And he offers even more kind words than usual to Draghi: “He is the most respected player in Italy and in the world. I think he fits at Palazzo Chigi, I think he’d fit at the presidency. The consequence of his election would be a new government, either on the Ursula [van der Leyen] model, or, as Salvini says, one ‘of the leaders’.”
The signals are still very timid, but there is a certain cautious optimism at the PD, and Letta is speaking openly of “positive signals from Salvini.” The PD is convinced that the withdrawal at the last second or the defeat of Berlusconi will cause a shake-up among the center-right. According to PD insiders, the hypothesis of a second-tier candidate, such as the president of the Senate, Casellati, or Pier Casini, will be difficult to entertain at that point, and will force the only two possible choices: Draghi or a second term for Mattarella. But the second name keeps coming up with scarce justification and little respect: “I don’t see Salvini and Meloni calling for Mattarella’s re-election,” commented Renzi, in an understatement. Salvini himself dryly rejected this as “pointless speculation.”