Silvio Berlusconi has overcome his reservations and set aside all his doubts—if he ever actually had any, that is. Making a dramatic entrance as he “joins the battlefield” is his trademark, and he did not disappoint this time either, as he announced his umpteenth return to running for office.
He made the surprise announcement at Quartu Sant’Elena, the first stop of his campaign tour for the Sardinian regional elections: “I have decided to put myself forward as a candidate for the European elections, for a Europe that needs to change.” He made headlines with his attack against the M5S: “I am running out of a sense of responsibility. I am joining the fight to stop this government. The 5 Stars are just like the Communists in 1994, but completely incompetent to boot.”
He has decided to announce his candidature at a very early point, much earlier than his strategists had advised him—a decision that was entirely his own. One cannot shake the suspicion that he chose Friday on purpose, in order to steal the show from the government alliance on the day their much-touted “citizenship income” decree was finally passed.
Berlusconi’s decision to run had reportedly already been made earlier this month. However, we don’t know whether the hesitation the ex-prime minister seemed to show up to that point was true or merely for show. We do know that the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, insisted that he should run, with an eye more towards the balance of power in Brussels than that in Rome.
We have information that some party leaders very close to Berlusconi had major concerns about him running, especially because of the possibility of a direct confrontation at the polls between the former absolute leader of the Italian right and his disruptive successor, the head of the Lega. Berlusconi seems to have heeded the advice of the President of the European Parliament because he saw an opportunity—but also because of a distinct fear. The opportunity is that of capturing more support from the dissatisfied northern Italian electorate, which is constantly torn between Forza Italia and the Lega, and is not happy about the government’s draft budget and the M5S’s high-spending agenda being implemented. Berlusconi and Tajani both believe—and there’s a good argument that they’re right—that the increase in the Lega’s standing in the national polls is coming from former 5 Star voters, but, at the same time, Matteo Salvini’s popularity in the north is on shaky ground. On the other hand, the fear haunting Berlusconi is that if he does nothing to stop the slow decline of Forza Italia, this will be seen as an invitation for everyone else who is interested in peeling off Berlusconi’s voters: not just Salvini, but Matteo Renzi too.
These arguments certainly played some role in his decision. However, it is likely that what made the difference in the end was—as usual for Silvio Berlusconi—something not at all to do with sober political calculations: namely, his desire to take revenge on those who kicked him out of the Senate in 2013 and barred him from running in the elections last year by making a triumphant entrance in the European Parliament, his belief that he is still able to move the masses, and his absolute unwillingness to be finally labeled as an elderly party leader who is out of the political game.
For Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s candidacy should prove to be an advantage. He will certainly not lose them any votes, and he’ll almost certainly manage to bring in more than otherwise. But it remains to be seen whether he will be able to significantly raise the prospects of a party that today is at 8 percent in the national polls—perhaps the most difficult challenge Berlusconi has ever faced in his political life. Furthermore, not even Berlusconi, with his stratospheric self-esteem, could fail to realize how risky it would be to get into a direct confrontation with Salvini—who has not yet decided whether he will run. The plans from Arcore probably involve a reciprocal arrangement in which the two parties would divide up the districts in order to avoid challenging each other head-on.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the leadership of Forza Italia is only interested in the Italian political context. The European stage is equally important. After the elections, the power struggles in Brussels are likely to play a crucial role, and the FI risks being left with very little clout. In recent years, the party has lost three heavyweights from its European caucus, including Alessandra Mussolini and Raffaele Fitto. This year, there is a strong possibility that it will see its number of MEPs cut in half, leaving it on the margins in the likely negotiations between the EPP and the parties further to the right. With Berlusconi on the list, Forza Italia hopes to win a greater number of MPs, but also, most importantly, the very presence of the notorious Italian politician in its European delegation should make it nearly impossible for the party to be sidelined.
On the Italian front, however, Berlusconi has the same goal he has been pursuing for some time: to break up the current majority, once and for all. If he can prove that the northern electorate is rejecting the yellow-green alliance and is instead pushing for a united right, the wily politician who has returned to the fray will have succeeded in taking an important step in that direction.