Wednesday, July 24, 2024
 
 

A post-Berlusconi Italy could find itself at an era-defining political turning point

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A new era began in Italy on June 12 when Silvio Berlusconi, the polarizing and towering political figure who dominated Italian politics for nearly three decades, was found dead while in hospital in his home city Milan.

The Italian government held a state funeral for Berlusconi, which was attended by political leaders – including current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, his family, and several ex-girlfriends. Berlusconi was a divisive figure for Italians, but thousands still gathered in Milan’s main square to say a final farewell to a man who led Italy throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, despite not having any prior political experience.

Berlusconi’s death could prove disastrous for the future of Forza Italia, the center-right political party that he founded. There are significant questions about whether it can survive without its charismatic creator as those who backed the party did so because they were drawn personally to Berlusconi as both a commanding personality and a leader.

Italy’s current foreign minister, and one of Berlusconi’s most trusted confidants, Antonio Tajani, believes that Forza Italia will not enter into a period of crisis following Berlusconi’s death, saying: “It’s unthinkable that the party would disappear.”

The road ahead

The post-Berlusconi era will be a challenge for Forza Italia and the Meloni government. The lavish funeral in Milan was an opportunity for the rival political parties to project a united front, but the next few weeks will be critical for Berlusconi’s party members as they scramble to find a way to remain relevant in a political landscape that is decidedly not on their side, but is instead strongly in favor of Prime Minister Meloni and her popular conservative mandate.

Speaking to NE Global on the day of the funeral, Senator Maurizio Gasparri, a Berlusconi loyalist, explained, ‘The government has a majority and the elections will be held in 2027. Forza Italia will absolutely go ahead. What would Berlusconi say to us right now? There is no other Berlusconi; there is no point in searching for his replacement. We will go ahead and present our mission statement, then it will be the citizens who will pass judgment. There is no presumption that there will be a second coming of Berlusconi or a feeling of desperation. What’s important is to remember Berlusconi and not water down his legacy. Forza Italia’s leaders will do their duty, and the party members will have to follow suit. In the past, the term ‘Berlusconi’ was just as important as our mission statement.”

Gasparri also noted that Berlusconi, who served as prime minister on four separate occasions, received support from Europe and other countries, with regards to some of his foreign policy initiatives.

Controversial foreign relations

Many in Europe, as well as further afield, would dispute Gasparri’s assessment of Berlusconi’s international affairs record.

During his turns as prime minister, he became well-known for his unorthodox manner of conducting foreign relations. He had a famously sandpapery relationship with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was eyed warily by the Obama administration.

Most famously, Berlusconi was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest friend in Europe and a supporter of Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine.

Putin’s long-standing personal friendship with Berlusconi was as controversial as it was crucial to cementing close ties between the two countries, which often made Rome one of Moscow’s strongest allies in the European Union.

Despite his track record in global affairs, many foreign dignitaries paid their respects.

“There is a lot of (international) recognition, including from the European Commission, with the attendance of Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni and Manfred Weber, the President of the European People’s Party. George W. Bush and Tony Blair also said kind words about him. If we had followed his policy, we would have had fewer deaths and fewer wars in the world. From some members of the opposition then came a polemic on the state funeral granted to the former Prime Minister, a quarrel, completely unhelpful according to Gasparri “We cannot confuse this tribute with a controversy caused by some political “dwarfs”. There will be a time and a way to respond to them. I won’t even mention them today as we are here to pay respects to a political giant.”

Raffaele Nevi, deputy vice-president of the Forza Italia deputies, according to Nevi, said the funeral was a wake-up call for everyone in Italy. “in short, with Berlusconi’s death, an era has come to an end. This has given me an extra charge. We must immediately carry his ideas forward, and try to keep his theories in mind to strengthen Forza Italia and the center-right to make it even stronger to form a government that will finally achieve that liberal revolution, which is our true goal.”

Berlusconi’s daughters, Eleonora (L) and Barbara (R) outside Milan’s Duomo following the funeral mass for their father.

Less optimism and more concern

Some voices emanating from the tributes to Berlusconi presented a more difficult future for Forza Italia now that it is essentially leaderless. Vittorio Sgarbi, the Undersecretary for Culture, spoke to NE Global after the funeral, saying “Among the possible future scenarios, the conservatives (Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, or The Brothers of Italy) remains in government. Some Forza Italia deputies are likely to join Meloni’s party and some will opt for Matteo Salvini’s right-wing Lega (The League).”

According to Sgarbi, a third option to represent the political center could be the formation of a coalition that would include former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Carlo Calenda, both of whom have become centrist politicians, and a stark contrast from Berlusconi’s center-right populism.

“If we look at the past, former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi tried to be a leader with a direct relationship with Berlusconi [in the late 1980s], but the vote was for Berlusconi, not for Forza Italia. This is why Forza Italia will have problems moving forward. You cannot make people vote for a ‘holy ticket’; you have to get them to vote for ideas. The first thing to do will be to set up a foundation where Berlusconi’s ideas will be preserved. Then a parliamentary inquiry, in which it will be explained that the trials Berlusconi underwent, were political trials. Up to the age of 58, he had no legal problems, which means that a political movement was launched against him. After this has been done, a think tank of people, all of whom are in the political center – neither right-wing or left-wing – could be created. I don’t think Forza Italia should be too revealing about the state of the party, as it is in a perilous situation right now. The party was him. Without him, there is no Forza Italia.”

A major issue Forza Italia must address is its financial stability. Without the backing of the Berlusconi family, the party has no chance of surviving. Berlusconi, himself, heavily funded Forza Italia to the tune of €100 million.

Forza Italia’s political future, and whether it remains a major party is also in question. Its share of the vote slipped to just 8% in the September 2022 general election.

Gianfranco Miccichè, who helped found Forza Italia, and who, for 25 years, was one of Berlusconi’s strongmen was blunt in his assessment of Forza Italia‘s future: “There will be no more Forza Italia. It dies with Silvio. It’s a foregone conclusion. Ours is not a party where a congress decides who takes the leadership. We will witness a quarrel over who owns his legacy, and who doesn’t, I already know how it will end.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni attends Berlusconi’s funeral in Milan.

Meloni’s options

If this forecast turns out to be true, the majority of deputies and senators will confirm their support for the government. Major hurdles could emerge in the Senate, where a majority for the ruling coalition – which includes both Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia – is tight.  This has led some to worry about a degree of political instability, particularly if one of the coalition parties abruptly dissolves

For her part, Prime Minister Meloni wants to eliminate any chance that the current government would need to consider a technocratic coalition that would include the wildly unpredictable left-wing 5 Star Movement.

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Managing Editor of European Union & Italian Political Affairs

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