To most of the world, and many in Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is "the clown prince of politics — better known for his bunga-bunga parties, outrageous comments, and courtroom battles than for any obvious political nous," says Mark Duff at BBC News. But after Italians go to the polls this weekend, the perpetually tanned septuagenarian billionaire may just end up in power again. Berlusconi wasn't leading in the polls before a pre-election polling blackout started on Feb. 8, but his conservative People of Freedom Party (PDL) was in second place and rising, according to a SWG Institute poll: Berlusconi was at 27.8 percent, Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left Democratic Party bloc had the lead at 33.8 percent, comedian-turned-protest-candidate Beppe Grillo bumped up to 18.8 percent, and Prime Minister Mario Monti's Civic Choice coalition had only 13.4 percent.
This is personal for Berlusconi — and not just to avenge his ouster 15 months ago. "Berlusconi is in politics to look after his media and broader business interests, to give himself maximum influence over his various trials (through the media and as a parliamentarian and leader of a major party), and for his own personal and psychological drives," says James Walston, a political scientist at the American University in Rome, quoted in the International Business Times. The former prime minister is facing trial for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and is appealing several convictions, any of which could land him in jail for several years. He won't be totally immune from prosecution if his party wins the election, but will "use whatever leverage the electorate gives him" to cut a deal, either to obtain a presidential pardon or perhaps to be named a "senator for life."
But what's in it for the Italians? asks The New York Times in an editorial. Berlusconi is running on a populist pledge to end and even refund an unpopular homeownership tax, "made necessary by Italy's poor record in collecting other taxes and the European Union's perverse insistence on balanced budgets in a recession." That alone would wipe out "all the painful sacrifices last year" that helped stabilize Italy's finances. But even if he doesn't win, a strong showing by his PDL "would be disastrous for Italy, which needs to push through overdue reforms, like stronger anti-corruption laws, a fairer tax code, and more competition" — none of which Berlusconi can credibly promise to achieve.
Yes, "Berlusconi's policies have been devastating to Italy," says Luigi Zingales in The Wall Street Journal. But if you want to know how Italians could "possibly vote for Mr. Berlusconi again? Unfortunately, the answer is that the main alternatives are not much better." Bersani is a colorless former Communist leading a sclerotic center-left coalition, and Monti has discredited himself by disavowing his own austerity policies. "If Italians must fall for fake promises, why not go with the master of deceit, the most glamorous and most extreme — il Cavaliere himself?"
Italians are tempted to pick the devil they know. At least Mr. Berlusconi is still talking about tax cuts, even though he consistently failed to deliver as prime minister. Pier Luigi Bersani, the Democrats' leader, wants to introduce new taxes to feed the inefficient bureaucratic machine. Why should we blame Italians for preferring Mr. Berlusconi? Faced with these alternatives, most Britons or Americans would do the same. [Wall Street Journal]
Luckily for the European and world leaders leery of facing another few years dealing with Berlusconi, "nobody apart from his own supporters believes he is likely to win this time," says Reuters' Michael Stott. The most probable outcome is a weak center-left coalition of Bersani's and Monti's parties — "political risk consultancy Eurasia assigns this scenario a 50-60 percent probability." Even if Berlusconi's party doesn't win outright, though, he may still end up kingmaker. The person to watch is Grillo, whose 30-year-old manslaughter conviction actually makes him ineligible to hold office under the rules of his own to-hell-with-the-system party. Some analysts expect Grillo's Five-Star Movement party to top 20 percent of the vote, and neither his bloc of neophyte politicians nor the separatist Northern League party, strong in populous Lombardy, will join a Bersani-Monti government.
Should Grillo's movement and the Northern League win enough seats to deprive a center-left coalition with Monti of an overall majority, the most likely outcome is a "grand coalition" of left and right, experts say. Such a result would unsettle investors because it would be likely to bring center-right leader former Premier Berlusconi, 76, back into government in a key role and Monti would be unlikely to join it. [Reuters]
The only safe bet for the March 24-25 election is that "a jaded electorate, angry about political corruption, economic mismanagement, and a national crisis that has impoverished a once-wealthy member of the G7 club of rich nations, could produce a surprise," says Stott. And that has a lot of people, both inside Italy and outside, very nervous.