What Future Awaits Forza Italia without Berlusconi?

Cesáreo Rodríguez Aguilera de Prat

8 mins - 4 de Octubre de 2023, 07:00

Silvio Berlusconi dominated Italian politics in the conventionally named ‘Second Republic’ after the disintegration of the Christian Democratic regime in 1994 and presided over the government in 1994-1995, 2001-2006, and 2008-2011. After his death, there is no clear political heir to the founder of Forza Italia (FI), and the big question is whether such a party so personality-based can survive the disappearance of its top leader. Precisely one of the problems of these charismatic parties is that of succession, and there are few examples of their survival without the strong leader who created them (Peronism and Gaullism being the main exceptions), which is why it is difficult to imagine FI without Berlusconi.

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For the time being, Antonio Tajani has been appointed as interim leader pro tempore until a Congress scheduled for 24-25 February 2024. He is a leader who embodies the absolute continuity of Berlusconi’s legacy, and it should be recalled that he is not without political weight as Foreign Minister and Vice-President of the European People’s Party (EPP). At the first exceptional Congress after Berlusconi’s death in June this year, endless praise was lavished on the “brilliant creator of the Italian centre-right”, and it was decided that the title of party president should be reserved exclusively for the founder to honour his memory. Berlusconi will therefore appear on the front page of FI’s statutes as “President and Founder”, and the party’s leader will henceforth be the National Secretary only.

Although in Giorgia Meloni’s government FI occupies a modest third place (in rounded figures it has gone from the traditional 20% to 8% in 2022) behind Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Lega, it is key not only because it ensures an absolute majority in both Houses of Parliament but also because it gives a centre-right garnish to a coalition that integrates two parties of the radical right. FI has six ministers in the Meloni government, 63 MPs (45 deputies and 18 senators), and chairs several committees. FI’s future depends in part on what happens in relations between FdI and the Lega for, without Berlusconi’s mediation, tensions between Meloni and Matteo Salvini are rising. The most likely outcome in the immediate future is that the coalition of the three right-wing parties will be maintained but certain manoeuvres to form a ‘new centre’ could destabilise it. The closest challenge for FI is to face the 2024 European Parliament elections, as overcoming the national threshold of 4% is key to obtain representation (polls today put FI at around 6%: You Trend). Should FI eventually fail to pass the 4% threshold, the paradox would be that the EPP would be left without Italian representation, and this is what sparked some internal debate on whether or not to join some initiatives proposing to lower the threshold to 3%. In fact, this option could damage the current Italian coalition government as it would fragment the centre-right, which is why Tajani ultimately has decided not to join such a proposal. Indeed, lowering the threshold would benefit the smaller parties whose political behaviour is not always predictable (Noi Moderati, Unione di Centro, and Azione, not to mention Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva). Meloni has pushed not to favour the dispersion of the centre-right vote, not least because her strategy is aimed at winning a large part of the FI electorate. Meloni’s project for the 2024 European elections is to bring the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) closer to the EPP, while weakening Salvini (Lega is integrated into Identity and Democracy-ID). In other words, the aim would be to create a strong, very conservative pole with an EPP well to the right, which would mean significantly reducing the influence of the Party of European Socialists and the liberals of Renew Europe. This objective is not easy because a large part of the EPP is on the ballot and because ECR and ID are practically tied in the polls.

FI faces a double dilemma: either it maintains the coalition with the Italian radical right (FdI and Lega), or it explores the possibility of an uncertain Terzo Polo or Grande Centro with Renzi and Carlo Calenda (Azione), although relations between the latter two are not at their best at present. The Terzo Polo option poses two problems for FI: trying to form it involves negotiating with many “generals” who have hardly any “soldiers” – but with the capacity to blackmail – and furthermore, the Berlusconi ‘family’ is opposed to such an eventuality. This has been absolutely decisive for certain talks between FI leaders and Renzi were blocked by the children of Berlusconi. Consequently, Tajani has already made it clear that FI does not share Renzi’s “pure” centrist option, as his option is to remain in the centre-right.
In any case, one of FI’s structural problems is its peculiar character, so much so that a new category has been coined in political classifications, that of the ‘business-firm party’ (Jonathan Hopkin and Caterina Paolucci), into which it fits as an almost unique case. FI is a business-firm party (it is an exceptional example of a conglomerate - Fininvest/ MFE, ex Mediaset – that becomes a party), with scarce organisational articulation and pyramidal, hierarchical functioning, and media marketing techniques. FI has been defined as a partito personale (Mauro Calise) in which the top leader controlled absolutely everything, hence without Berlusconi it will be more difficult to keep the party together. Just as the old Lega Nord claimed Bossi è la Lega and the Lega è Bossi, FI is an exclusive product of Berlusconi at his total service: the brief experiment of merging with the post-fascists of Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale to create the Popolo della Libertà in 2007 ended up making the Cavaliere uncomfortable, and he dissolved such superstructure which never functioned well. 

Berlusconi has left an ideological legacy that has contributed to the deterioration of the quality of Italian democracy and which, by the way, foreshadowed Donald Trump: an opportunistic and demagogic discourse (“nouveau-ism”, “efficiency”, “moderatism”, “anti-communism” and even “liberalism”) that was always banal and superficial, giving way to a very aggressive and disqualifying political style of the left, with simplistic and gimmicky slogans that treated the voter as a consumer. In addition, the private television stations of its business conglomerate contributed a lot to degrade and manipulate the political debate in Italy.

In short, Berlusconi leaves no political heirs (although he does leave a negative way of doing politics), but his children still carry a lot of weight. None of them has chosen to enter politics directly, as the priority has been to accept the testamentary terms of the economic inheritance, assumed by all of them. In this respect, Pier Silvio and Marina stand out from the other three siblings as they have taken control of 53% of the companies. In any case, Berlusconi’s children refuse to allow FI to be dissolved, as does Berlusconi’s last girlfriend, Marta Fascina, who is also a member of parliament. FI is carrying a debt of €100 million, guaranteed by the Berlusconi family, which gives it a lot of strength in determining what to do with the party (Marco Bellinazzo et al.: I Berlusconi. I numeri, i protagonisti, i nodi cruciali dell’eredità del Cavaliere, Il Sole 24 Ore, Milan, 2023). 

In conclusion, the key for FI is to survive, overcome the challenge of the 2024 European elections, and clarify its future. In this sense, several scenarios are potentially open: 1) FI does not resist and dissolves, 2) it survives and remains anchored to the coalition with the radical right, and 3) it chooses to push for the Terzo Polo. The first scenario is unlikely, as is the third, while the second is the most plausible, at least in the short and medium term. The question will be not to allow itself to be swallowed up by FdI and to preserve its ‘mediating’ position within the Meloni government, something that will become clearer in the crucial European elections of 2024. 
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