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It was looking like a good year for democracy.
Donald Trump is gone in the United States, at least for the moment, and other populist demagogues in power seem about to lose it. Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom is teetering on the brink, Viktor Orban faces a united opposition in Hungary in the upcoming election, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is likely to lose to ‘Lula’ da Silva next October.
Then, just as it finally feels safe to go back into the water, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, the ‘thinking person’s Trump’, rises from his shallow political grave at the age of 85 and declares that he wants to be Italy’s next president. He might win, too.
The election of an Italian president is an arcane ritual not unlike what happens at a Vatican conclave to select the next pope. There are no official candidates, and ordinary voters have no say. The 1,008 ‘Grand Electors’, drawn from the two houses of parliament and the regional governments, just write in the name of anyone they fancy as president.
It can be literally anybody who is Italian, over fifty, and registered to vote. You don’t need to be a professional politician to get the job, and three of the last four weren’t. The vote is secret, and at one time or another Sophia Loren, football greats, and even a porn star have been in the running.
Normally, it takes around half a dozen rounds of voting to select a new president, but once it took 23 ballots and lasted sixteen days. The voting starts next Monday, 24 January, but it could be February before it finishes. When it does, Silvio Berlusconi, the godfather of all the fast-talking charlatans who infest the current scene, could be Italy’s new president.
Berlusconi governed Italy as prime minister three times between 1994 and 2011 at the head of various coalitions, for a total of nine years. Italy’s economy and reputation were in steady decline the whole time, but his ‘base’ never faltered in its loyalty. They didn’t mind his endless lies and his orange colour; they just admired his energy and his rudeness.
Like Trump, Berlusconi has gone through life leaving a trail of non-disclosure agreements behind him, but unlike the Donald he has actually been brought to account a few times. He was convicted of tax fraud, sentenced to four years in jail (commuted to one year’s community service on appeal) and barred from politics for six years.
His media empire was founded with Mafia money, and he has been investigated for corruption, bribery, organising orgies, and soliciting a child for sexual services. He is now facing trial on criminal charges related to his ‘bunga bunga’ sex parties – and still his base forgives him.
Berlusconi more or less withdrew from public view after open-heart surgery in 2016, but here he is again, still eager for power. Italian presidents don’t have much power – they’re largely ceremonial figures – but they do appoint prime ministers, which makes the office very important in a system where there are many parties and all governments are coalitions.
That’s why the leaders of Italy’s right-wing bloc, which includes the hard-right League and the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy, will support him in the presidential election. Add in Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia, and he has 450 votes of the 505 he would need to win election in the fourth or subsequent rounds, when the victor needs only a simple majority.
“For the first time ever, we could have a president of the centre-right,” said Federico Mollicone of the Brothers of Italy. The word ‘centre’ is a bit misleading in that quote, but it’s true that the far right is in the ascendant politically in Italy, and that Berlusconi, although not strongly ideological himself, would be happy to serve as midwife for such a coalition.
A great many Italians are dismayed by such a possibility, and it would be seriously embarrassing to have somebody as louche as Berlusconi as the head of state. Nevertheless, it could happen – and if Berlusconi can come back at 85 and win, why not Trump? He’ll only be 78 when the next US presidential election rolls around.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.