As Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s 76-year-old, three-time prime minister and tax-fraud convict, began his community-service sentence working with Alzheimer’s patients at an elderly-care home in Milan on Friday, his 47-year-old daughter Marina was in Rome, meeting with her father’s Forza Italia party faithful. Berlusconi’s eldest child from his first marriage has proven herself a capable heiress apparent in her father’s Fininvest holding company and his publishing empire. Now she is being touted as the anointed successor in his political empire, too. The only problem is that she doesn’t really want the job.
Instead, the successful businesswoman, who is regularly rated among the world’s most powerful—33rd in Fortune and 48th in Forbes—is being muscled to take over her father’s political legacy. Two years ago, she said she would never enter politics. Last year, she shrugged, ”who knows.” Last week, she essentially said “never say never.” “I have a great respect for politics, which I follow with great attention,” she told Corriere della Sera. “Having said that, you can never rule anything out in life.”
Political dynasties are, of course, very common. The only problem with this scenario is that Marina is no Silvio Berlusconi. Unlike her father, who is a charismatic extrovert, Marina is painfully shy and even slightly disagreeable when it comes to public appearances, with what could easily be described as a squeaky voice that is rarely heard. She has never made a political speech, and, apart from what her father says about her, she has no track record as a political power.
The Italian media has dedicated a fair amount of attention recently to the fact that Marina Berlusconi does not like to be on television, which must surely be in direct contrast to family values in the Berlusconi household, considering the family has power over more than half of what Italians watch—and often it is Berlusconi himself on screen that they are seeing. “What does Marina Berlusconi sound like?” asked Yahoo News Italia’s political gossip site recently, pointing out that she only gives one-dimensional print-press interviews: “Only interviews with no apparent personality, just dry statements made of words, sayings, expressions, but never a verb or an adjective to describe the mode of expression.”
According to a former employee of Fininvest who worked closely with Ms. Berlusconi, she so despises being on camera that she prohibits the videotaping of her company addresses. The only YouTube videos of her are paparazzi-style entrances and exits at gala events and business meetings. She has been described by her father as “the best director in a skirt that Fininvest could ever have” and by those who work for her as “cold” and “distant.”
Nonetheless, she does have what would appear to be widespread support from within her father’s intimate circle. Berlusconi’s fiancée, Francesca Pascale, who is 20 years younger than her future daughter-in-law, has come out twice in the last week to endorse Berlusconi as the “ideal leader” of Forza Italia. “The gifts of intelligence and political acumen, along with Marina’s readiness make her similar and very close to her father,” Pascale said, presumably with both Berlusconis’ approval.
There have also been suggestions that Berlusconi’s political party will have a primary vote to elect a new leader once Berlusconi officially steps aside, which, if she wins, would give Marina the legitimacy she needs. In a recent poll conducted by Euromedia Research from within the Berlusconi party, that should be no problem. Nearly 70 percent of the party members said they favored Marina Berlusconi as the new party leader. Not bad considering she has never addressed the whole party as a potential candidate.
A bigger obstacle will be how Forza Italia would fare in national elections—with or without its founder or his daughter at the helm. Early polls show that the political party, which split in two in a dramatic breakup led by Angelino Alfano last fall, will not fare well in European elections this month. Polls show it lagging behind the center-left Democratic party and the protest Five Star Movement. Poor results could be the perfect launching pad for the party shuffle, with Berlusconi’s daughter waiting in the wings.
Of course, that is if she can be convinced to take the job. And the hesitancy could all be by design. If she reluctantly agrees to take over “for the good of the country,” she will be conveniently following in the same footsteps as her father, who has always maintained that he didn’t like political life, but that he “felt a duty to be in politics.” It worked well for him. He remains the longest-serving post-war prime minister by a wide margin.
According to an editorial in Berlusconi’s brother’s newspaper Il Giornale, the decision seems to already be made. “The dynastic choice is the only viable one,” wrote director Alessandro Sallusti. “Situations like this take place successfully in advanced democracies, from American to France. In addition to the bloodline, she also has the same spirit of her father.”
Unbelievably, perhaps given Berlusconi’s myriad of scandals and convictions, that is seen as her trump card. It’s now up to her whether she will play it.