Could Silvio Berlusconi return as Italy’s next president?

Silvio Berlusconi gestures before a 2016 soccer match between his AC Milan and SS Lazio in Milan, Italy.

Marco Luzzani | Getty Images

Italy is about to begin the process of electing a new president, with a number of old faces among the contenders, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

A media mogul and business magnate, Berlusconi, 85, is a veteran of Italian politics and not without controversy. An old-school politician, Berlusconi has served as prime minister in four Italian governments since the 1990s, weathering numerous sex and financial scandals – and subsequent legal battles – over the years, as well as frequent political storms in Italy.

The first round of parliamentary voting to appoint Italy’s new head of state, which is largely a ceremonial but nonetheless important role, begins on Monday. Current Prime Minister Mario Draghi is likely the frontrunner in the race, but a right-wing alliance backing Forza Italia leader Berlusconi could hamper his candidacy.

Just over 1,000 so-called “grand electors” are taking part in the voting process to find a successor to Sergio Mattarella who is leaving the post. Voters are made up mostly of Italian legislators and senators, as well as regional representatives, with most voters affiliated with various political parties, but some (just over 100) are independents.

There will likely be multiple ballots during the election, with the first three ballots requiring a two-thirds majority (or 673 votes) of 1,009 voters to elect a president. From the fourth ballot, an absolute majority of 505 votes is required for a candidate to be elected. It is rare for a president to be elected in the first rounds given the necessary two-thirds majority.

Can Berlusconi do it?

It is uncertain whether Berlusconi can muster enough support and he depends on independents giving him their support.

Guidogiorgio Bodrato, an economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note on Wednesday that “the outcome of the vote is open”, noting that with only a few days left before the Electoral College begins voting on January 24, Berlusconi is the only major candidate who openly declared his interest.

However, the former Prime Minister cannot be sure of obtaining all the votes of the three parties (Forza Italia, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia) which now support him. As things stand, the right-wing alliance of three center-right and right-wing parties could give him a potential 441 votes out of 1,009, but he needs support from other smaller parties and independents if he wants to win.

“If he does [get support from all the parties in the right-wing alliance] and wins additional support from centrist Coraggio Italia, he will still fall short of the absolute majority of 505 required from the fourth round. With a few more votes, the centre-right/right alliance could elect either Berlusconi or another president of their choice. The centrist Italia Viva by Matteo Renzi could total 44 votes. This would bring them closer to a majority: with around 30 votes from unaffiliated members of the chambers, this would reach the required threshold,” Bodrato noted.

“But to convince Renzi and unaffiliated members to join them, the leaders of the centre-right/right-wing alliance may have to ask Berlusconi to step down in favor of a less controversial candidate like the former chief of staff. of Berlusconi, Gianni Letta, former economy minister Giulio Tremonti or former mayor of Milan Letizia Moratti,” he noted.

And Draghi?

Draghi, who is seen as an unofficial presidential candidate for the center-left, is the likeliest candidate for the job, although who replaces him as prime minister would spell more uncertainty for Italy.

Draghi took office in early 2021 after the collapse of the government coalition triggered by the withdrawal of the Italia Viva party – paving the way for a new unit leader. Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, is widely seen as having successfully stabilized the often unwieldy ship that is Italy, inspiring investor confidence in its ability to manage its indebted economy.

Unsurprisingly, there is strong opposition to Berlusconi’s candidacy among Italy’s centre-left Partito Democratico and left-wing Liberi e Uguali and the populist Five Star movement with various officials declaring Berlusconi’s candidacy an unacceptable option, preferring a more impartial candidate. Yet so far the parties have not decided on an alternative candidate they could support, according to Italian media.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, said in a note on Thursday that “Berlusconi has long dreamed of being president and has so far held allies on the right, Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini of the League, for their agreement to support him (the right had theoretically agreed to do so in view of the three parties presenting themselves as a bloc in any future election, and in exchange for Berlusconi’s support to block a possible modification of the electoral law which would be detrimental to its allies).”

“But his candidacy is unacceptable to the left because of his track record of changing laws to protect himself and his businesses, criminal convictions and ongoing criminal prosecutions.”

“Zero possibility”

For his part, Matteo Renzi, the leader of the centrist Italia Viva party and also a former prime minister, told CNBC on Thursday that there was “no possibility” that Berlusconi would be Italy’s next president.

“Please,” he told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe” on Thursday, “there are no possibilities for Silvio Berlusconi to become president of the republic. I know the assumption was very interesting for the newspapers for many reasons, but for me there is no possibility for Silvio Berlusconi to become president of the republic.”

Renzi said that “there is a possibility for Mario Draghi to become president of the republic but it is a difficult choice for us members of parliament, because Mario Draghi was and is a great prime minister. He saved Italy last year when we changed the government…so he’s a perfect man to be prime minister, but at the same time he could be a great president,” he noted.

“The Draghi discussion is a real discussion, the Berlusconi discussion is not,” Renzi added.

Renzi likened the president’s role to that of an “arbiter” and given that the president holds office for seven years, he can provide much-needed stability to Italian politics.

“But his role could be very important,” he noted, with the president a possible leader in times of political upheaval. “Next week’s decision will be very important not only for this year but for the next seven years. Usually in Italy the government changes very quickly but the president is the most stable institution,” he added. .

He expected the winner of the presidential election to be known by next Thursday or Friday.

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