Italy's Silvio Berlusconi Says Supporters Begged Him to Return to Politics
ROME – The reports that Italy’s billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi is planning another run at the prime minister’s office became just about official Monday, when Berlusconi speculated about changing the name of his political party to its original moniker -- "Go Italy" -- and then denied his intentions after allies complained.
Even before that, signals were adding up that Berlusconi -- who resigned from the prime minister’s job in November amid personal and legal scandals and a growing fear that Italy would fall victim to the European debt crisis -- was officially throwing his hat in the ring.
Last Wednesday, the head of the party Berlusconi founded and Berlusconi’s hand-picked political heir, Angelino Alfano, said he believed Berlusconi would run again; on Friday, other allies emerged from a series of strategy sessions at Berlusconi’s Rome residence and said a run was in the works. Over the weekend, posters touting Berlusconi’s leadership qualities started appearing around Rome and other Italian cities, and, on Sunday, Alfano said he would step down as party head, clearing the way for Berlusconi to take over.
But Monday’s remarks were the first official word from Berlusconi that he was likely to run when elections are held next year. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Berlusconi said that supporters pleaded with him "often and emphatically" to return to politics.
And what has he been telling them?
"I can only say that I won’t let down my old People of Freedom Party," Berlusconi said. "And by the way, we will return to the old party name, Forza Italia."
"Forza Italia," literally "Go Italy," is a traditional soccer cheer and the name Berlusconi chose for his first political movement in 1994 -- a nod to the fact that before that run, Berlusconi was best known to Italians as the owner of the AC Milan soccer team. Over time, the party evolved into its current People of Freedom incarnation.
The comment about the return to the Forza Italia name was published on Berlusconi’s personal web site, but after several key allies, including Alfano, said they did not support such an idea, Berlusconi denied saying it, arguing that he had been misquoted and that he was just floating an idea.
Despite the inauspicious start to what may shape up to be Berlusconi’s next political campaign, the polling company Opinioni released its first poll since the hints of a 2013 Berlusconi run first surfaced and they showed Berlusconi’s approval level at 30% of those questioned. Low for an aspiring politician, but still higher than any other potential rival.
“Given the lack of competition one had to look at the poll as a mostly positive sign for Berlusconi,” said Maria Rossi, Opinioni’s co-director said Monday.
But not all the signs were good. Also on Monday, Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of Rome and a key Berlusconi ally in the past, noted that Alfano had been elected as the had of the People of Freedom party and that Berlusconi could not not simply assume the role. He called for a party primary to accurately guage Berlusconi’s support among the party faithful.
Additionally, the Northern League, a junior partner in all of Berlusconi’s governments has said it will not support the 75-year old media kingpin and that it might look to rally around another figure.
Predictably, political rivals said they were taken aback by Berlusconi's aparent plans. Pier Luigi Bersani, the head of the main party opposite People of Freedom, on Saturday said the notion of a Berlusconi candidacy should send "cold shivers" down the back of every Italian.
And lastly, another round of hearings involving corruption and tax evasion in connection with the Mediaset television and cinema giant Berlusconi controls is scheduled to get underway before courts recess for the August break.
“There’s one level of interest and spectacle when it’s a private citizen under indictment, and another all together when it’s a declared candidate for the prime minister’s office,” said Rossi, the pollster.
For Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire, at least, the recent changes have been cast in a positive light. The shares have lost nearly half their value over the last year, and for a four-week span starting in mid-June and into early July they touched a new 52-week low every week.
But they have gained value, however slightly, since speculation about a Berlusconi run began, rising in three of four sessions and closing trading on Monday up 1.9% at €1.285, 8.6% higher than their lowest point in the past last year.