Italy's Berlusconi Holds Key Cards in Messy Political Impasse

Silvio Berlusconi standing -P 2013
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No rival is willing to consider an alliance with the 76-year-old billionaire media tycoon, but he has repeatedly shown that he cannot be counted out.

ROME – At first he offered to form a governing alliance with his political rivals. Then he said such a deal was inevitable. And Thursday, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi demanded a deal be made.

Berlusconi is nothing if not persistent.

Against all odds, the controversial billionaire media tycoon has emerged as a central power player in Italy’s political impasse less than 18 months after he stepped down from the prime minister role in disgrace -- hounded by personal and legal scandals, with investors abandoning the country they believed was about to fall victim to the European debt crisis.

The 76-year-old Berlusconi retreated to the Mediaset television and cinema giant he founded and pledged to support the technocrat government led by university president and former European Commissioner Mario Monti, who replaced him as prime minister. But Berlusconi grew tired of that role, and late last year his allies walked out on a key vote, dooming the Monti government. And then in February, he came within a whisker of winning the popular vote in national elections.

The popular vote went to pre-election favorite Pier Luigi Bersani, the center-left candidate, who secured a majority in the lower house of parliament. But Bersani, Berlusconi, and comic-turned-activist Beppe Grillo each earned a large enough bloc in the Senate to assure none could achieve a majority without the help of one of the others.

Bersani has repeatedly reached out to Grillo’s forces, only to be rebuffed.

All of which leaves Berlusconi in an increasingly powerful position. “We’re completely ready to form a coalition government that could take over immediately and put into place economic measures that where the same views are shared by both sides,” Berlusconi said Wednesday.

On Thursday, he demanded a deal be struck: “It is the only possibility for forming a new government,” he reasoned.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano late Thursday gave Bersani a mandate to try to form a new government, so Berlusconi's latest observations will soon be put to the test.

Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in 1994, when he headed a seven-month government. He returned to politics to become prime minister again in 2001 and then in 2008. During the past 20 years, he has continually been followed by legal probes, personal scandal, gaffes and other controversies.

Bersani, a longtime Berlusconi critic, insists he has no intention of aligning his backers with those of Berlusconi. But unless Grillo has a change of heart, Bersani’s options may prove to be between striking some kind of deal with Berlusconi, resorting to ruling via a minority government that seeks to cobble together one-off majorities by wooing individual lawmakers for each vote, or watching a deadlock linger for weeks or perhaps months.

The first option would undermine Bersani's credibility (and his government), the second would be unlikely to survive for more than a few votes, and the third could result in Italy sliding back into the jaws of the European debt crisis (where it was when Berlusconi resigned in 2011).

Berlusconi’s offer to throw his support behind Bersani comes with strings attached: he does not believe Bersani’s allies should be able to pick both the prime minister and the president (the term of the current president, Napolitano, concludes May 15). In Italy, the prime minister is the most powerful figure in government, and so Berlusconi’s backers says he’ll “settle” for picking the president.

One fear, so far spoken about mostly in whispers, is that the center-right could select Berlusconi as president if given the chance. That’s still a long shot at this point, but holding that office would give Berlusconi some protection against the legal problems that have followed him.

In October, Berlusconi was sentenced to four years behind bars for tax evasion in connection with some acquisition deals related to Mediaset, and this year he was sentenced to another year in a wiretap case related to Il Giornale, a newspaper he controls and that is run by his younger brother Paolo Berlusconi (the convictions in both cases are under appeal).

But the biggest case is still open. The elder Berlusconi is being tried for abuse of power and for paying an underage girl -- a then 17-year erotic danger named Karima el-Mahrough but best known as Ruby the Heart Stealer -- for sex. A ruling in that case is expected by this summer, when, if Berlusconi has his way, his latest political comeback will be complete.