After tax fraud, sex scandals and heart surgery Silvio Berlusconi is back
November 12, 2017 01:19 PM NPT
Photo Courtesy: Agencies
ROME, Nov 12: Silvio Berlusconi resorted to a familiar tactic to appeal to the crowd during a recent political comeback speech on the enchanting Italian island of Ischia: a joke laced with sexual innuendo.
Addressing the topic of immigration, the 81-year-old proudly recounted the time his good friend Muammar Gaddafi took him on a tour of a migrant center, during which Berlusconi noted the absence of bidets in the lavatories. When the late Libyan dictator asked what a bidet was used for, Berlusconi emphasized the importance of washing before oral sex. The billionaire’s punchline – “I taught the Africans about foreplay” – had its desired effect, drawing laughter and applause.
Yes, the politician some Italians call Il Cavaliere (the knight) is back, still combining his penchant for vulgarity with a honed instinct for power.
The outcome of regional elections in Sicily last Sunday confirmed his remarkable capacity for survival over a long political career tainted by sex scandals, countless allegations of corruption and a tax fraud conviction which many pundits predicted would kill him off. Berlusconi succeeded in forging a winning coalition out of his center-right Forza Italia and the two far-right parties – the Northern League and Brothers of Italy.
In doing so, he crushed the populist Five Star Movement’s dream of governing its first region and compounded the disarray within the center-left Democratic party, which had been in power in Sicily since 2012.
The results, seen as a barometer of how things might play out in national elections due in spring, thrust the media and property magnate back into the forefront of Italian politics, six years after he was forced to resign over claims he paid for sex with an underage prostitute and four years after he was ejected from parliament over the tax fraud conviction.
In a further reflection of his enduring vitality, the comeback comes less than 18 months after Berlusconi underwent open-heart surgery.
“Sicily has chosen the path of real, serious, constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience,” he wrote on his Facebook page, while ascribing the success, which saw Forza Italia’s Nello Musumeci become president of Sicily, to his many appearances on the island in the run-up to the vote.
Berlusconi’s political track record is not exactly stellar, but his second term as prime minister, between 2001 and 2006, is the longest held by any Italian leader since the second world war. It’s this experience and longevity that his loyal band of supporters find so appealing.
Catia Polidori, a Forza Italia parliamentarian and deputy minister of economic development in his last government, said: “It’s no surprise that Berlusconi has returned to the centre of the political scene.
“His resignation was forced by an international plot, but his leadership was respected. He’s a great businessman and led a better economy; if you look at the economic data from the period he was in office, it was a lot better than it is now. Pensions were higher, people lived better, there was less poverty and less unemployment.”
Polidori also applauded his good relations with Gaddafi, saying: “We never had the kind of migrants’ invasion that we have today.” She also brushed aside the sex scandals. “We know the real Berlusconi – he’s kind and is one of the most elegant men in the world. With regards to the women in his party, he’s always admired us and our work.”
During his time away from the central political scene, Berlusconi has nurtured a softer image, projecting himself as a lover of nature and animals, announcing last year that he had become vegetarian. On the day before the Sicily elections, he posted a photo of himself on Instagram taking a stroll around Catania’s botanical gardens. He and his 32-year-old girlfriend, Francesca Pascale, keep 10 dogs at home, while sheep wander around their well-manicured lawns.
“Berlusconi is much more moderate these days, in politics and in his personal life,” insisted Polidori.
Meanwhile, the Italian government has lurched from one unelected prime minister to the next, with the former leader, Matteo Renzi, the head of the ruling centre-left Democratic party, being forced to quit last December over his failed referendum on a constitutional overhaul.
The 42-year-old is plotting his own 2018 comeback, beginning an eight-week tour of Italy by train in October as part of his campaign. “But the truth is that, politically, Renzi is now a spent force,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “Many people see him as arrogant. He’s our Theresa May – he bet all his money on the referendum exactly the same way she bet all hers on the general election, although he fared even worse.”