Silvio Berlusconi: The Joker Is Back

The former prime minister sent his successor’s government into chaos Thursday.

Stefano Porta / EPA / Landov

If nothing else, Silvio Berlusconi knows how to rattle a saber. Against a backdrop of helicopters swooping over student protesters and anti-austerity demonstrators who yet again filed through the ancient cobbled streets of Rome on Thursday, the former prime minister proved once and for all who’s boss. He and his center-right party members walked out of Parliament ahead of a crucial vote, sending the government into crisis mode and wreaking havoc with the European markets.

Italy’s unelected technocratic prime minister, Mario Monti, was working in his office nearby and dashed to the senate chambers to try to wrest back control. But by then it was too late, and Berlusconi and his clan had already left the building. Berlusconi repeated the antic in the afternoon in the lower house of Parliament, this time to jeers from fellow politicians. The vote, ironically, was about lowering government expenditures and making it illegal for anyone with a criminal record to serve in Parliament.

But by abstaining from the ballot rather than flatly voting against the measure, the elder statesman, who has served four times as prime minister and who was just convicted of tax fraud (he denied the charges), saved face by effectively sending a warning shot across the bow rather than sinking the whole ship. Monti was forced to react, facing the second vote in the lower house stoically. Asked if he would go on given the circumstances, he said, “What circumstances?” He won by a tight margin.

The Berlusconi boycott came just hours after the media magnate made a very precedented promise to return to the center stage, hinting that he felt compelled to run in elections to be held next year. After his parliamentary hijinks, Berlusconi confirmed that he would indeed be running, announcing that he would stand in next year’s elections. Boasting that he had been “besieged by requests” from supporters who wanted him back, he said he felt it was his “duty” to return to power. In an open letter on his party’s website, Berlusconi criticized his successor, Monti, for guiding Italy to “the brink of the abyss,” lamenting that things were “far worse than one year ago” when he was forced to resign amid corruption and sex scandals. But he says things are far worse without him. “Businesses are closing; buildings are collapsing; the market has been destroyed. I cannot allow my country to continue in this endless downward spiral,” he wrote.

It was reaction to Berlusconi’s not-so-subtle hint of a comeback that sparked Thursday’s crisis, which was seen as a nasty revenge attack. It started when Monti’s economic development minister, Corrado Passera, likened the return of Berlusconi to an apocalyptic mistake for the country. “There is nothing more unimaginable than giving the rest of the world—our partners—the impression that we are going backward,” he told a morning television program. “It is not good for Italy. We need to give the impression that the country is moving forward.”

The crisis set off a dizzying chain of events among the political class, with Italy’s political leaders huddling in secret meetings late into the night to craft reactions and plan their next steps. Few analysts were yet prepared to make a prediction about how this crisis would play out in the markets, except to say that political instability is the worst possible news for Italy’s economy. Pier Luigi Bersani, who just won the center-left primary and who will stand in elections next year, called Berlusconi’s trick “irresponsible” by compromising the country’s reputation and potentially weakening the already volatile economy.

Only one thing is certain—Monti’s ability to govern unhindered has been forever lost. And Berlusconi has now proven yet again that he still has power in Italy.