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GABRIEL BOUYS (AFP)

Italy After Berlusconi

Davide Vampa

5 mins - 18 de Junio de 2023, 23:30

The recent death of Silvio Berlusconi has been seen by many observers as signalling the end of an era in Italian politics. From a symbolic standpoint, this is probably true. One of the key figures in Italy’s recent history has passed away, leaving behind an empty space in the public arena that, for now, remains unfilled. However, this space has already undergone significant contraction in the past decade, with new leaders emerging in different sectors of the right and reshaping Italy’s political landscape. Meanwhile, although Berlusconi’s persona may be gone, his ideas, leadership style, economic empire, and power system endure, thus making the notion of the “end of an era” certainly more complex and problematic.

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Over the past ten years, the Italian right has experienced a profound political restructuring. After reaching its peak in electoral support in 2008, Berlusconi’s party, which for most of its existence has been called Forza Italia, began a gradual decline (Figure 1). This decline accelerated following the sovereign debt crisis of 2011-2012 and Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud, which led to his expulsion from the Italian parliament in 2013. However, even outside Italy’s main representative institution, Berlusconi continued to exert influence over institutional and legislative processes. In 2014, the then-leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, Matteo Renzi, even sought to forge an institutional pact with Berlusconi to reform Italy’s constitution and voting system, thus acknowledging the ongoing centrality of the disgraced leader. In the 2014 European elections, although weakened, Forza Italia remained the largest party on the right. Nevertheless, the political climate was rapidly changing, with the rise of new populist challengers.
 
Figure 1.- Changing electoral results of main Italian right-wing parties from 1994 to 2022 (%), General and European elections
Source: Italian Interior Ministry, historical archives
 
Between 2015 and 2018, Berlusconi began losing his grip on the right-wing electorate, as it increasingly gravitated toward more radical messages. The Northern League, previously a junior partner in Berlusconi’s coalition, underwent a transformation from a regionalist party into a state-wide radical right populist party under the leadership of Matteo Salvini. Salvini, a younger leader who embraced social media, quickly emerged as the most popular figure on the right. In 2018, for the first time in over 20 years, Berlusconi was surpassed by another right-wing competitor. The populist wave led by Salvini was subsequently followed by an even stronger one led by Giorgia Meloni, who headed a once-small conservative party associated with the post-fascist tradition. Between 2021 and 2022, Meloni rose to prominence in Italian politics and became the country's first female Prime Minister.

By 2022, Berlusconi had become a less central political figure, and his support had significantly eroded. His party garnered barely 8% of the vote. In 2018, around 40% of his voters had already shifted their allegiance to Salvini. In 2022, another quarter of Forza Italia’s 2018 voters migrated to Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy. Despite its diminished size, Berlusconi’s electorate remained crucial for the victory of the right-wing coalition. Without his votes and parliamentary support, Giorgia Meloni would have struggled to become Prime Minister. The question now arises: what will become of the group left orphaned by Berlusconi? Will they seek another leader for Forza Italia? Will they splinter into different factions? Will they remain loyal to Giorgia Meloni?

One significant challenge for Berlusconi’s party is its lack of full institutionalization despite its three-decade existence. It has never developed organizational structures that would make it less reliant on the leader. Forza Italia has essentially remained a personal party, operating much like one of Berlusconi’s companies and controlled by a small circle of his close allies. It is exceedingly difficult for such a party to survive beyond the tenure of its leader since much of its appeal and financial and organizational resources are contingent on a single individual. Berlusconi, cultivating the image of an almost immortal guide, never seriously considered succession plans and regularly clashed with other aspiring leaders who possessed the qualities to fill his shoes.



The likely scenario is one characterized by growing tensions and infighting within the remnants of the political project created by Berlusconi. Some members might consider Salvini’s and Meloni’s parties as potential destinations to continue their political careers. This would result in a further shift to the right within the coalition, where Forza Italia played the role of the more “moderate” component. Others may instead look towards the centre and align themselves with other small organizations, including the one founded by Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister and leader of the centre-left Democratic Party who, as mentioned above, previously attempted to establish a dialogue with Berlusconi on constitutional reforms. Renzi has since left the Democratic Party and moved towards the right, occupying a political space that significantly overlaps with Forza Italia. Even during his leadership of the centre-left, many accused Renzi of embodying a new “Berlusconi” due to his political style and hostility towards traditional left-wing positions. Numerous members of Forza Italia may resonate with this sentiment and view Renzi as a potential heir to Berlusconi’s legacy.

A substantial split towards the centre may pose challenges for Giorgia Meloni. Her majority depends on the support of Forza Italia, and losing too many MPs could undermine the stability of her government. However, over the past thirty years, various attempts have been made to create centrist parties as alternatives to both the left and right, all of which have thus far failed. Regardless of the course events take, one thing remains certain: even though Berlusconi is now dead and no obvious successor has emerged, his legacy remains relevant and will continue to shape Italian politics, to varying degrees, in the years to come.

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