- - Monday, November 13, 2017

ROME — Bunga bunga is back.

Silvio Berlusconi may be best known around the world for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and convictions for corruption that have regularly undermined a career unlike any other in postwar Italian politics. The last time he held political office, he was forced to resign with the country on the brink of bankruptcy, and, because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction, he is legally barred from running for office again until 2019.

He’s clearly not getting the message.

The billionaire media and sports tycoon and on-again-off-again politician who served three stints as Italy’s prime minister from 1994 to 2011 is preparing to make one more grasp for power. At age 81, Mr. Berlusconi is poised to play yet another role in the country’s fragmented politics: kingmaker.

Despite all the political obituaries written for the man over the years, many here are not surprised.

“Yes, against all odds, we seem to be ready to give Berlusconi one more shot,” said Andrea Moretti, a 44-year-old cook who said he was briefly a Berlusconi supporter when he first entered politics in 1994. “It is at once unbelievable and absolutely predictable.”

The speculation has surged since Mr. Berlusconi’s political party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), dramatically grabbed the top spot in last week’s regional elections in Sicily. The vote was seen as a harbinger for national elections set to take place in the first half of next year.

The Italian political system has rarely seemed stable or predictable, but this is a particularly volatile period. There are three distinct factions: the traditional center-left Democratic Party, the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, and Mr. Berlusconi and his allies to the right of center — all clawing at one another while trying to prevent their bases from splintering.

In an exquisite irony, the polarizing Mr. Berlusconi may be the most unifying figure on the Italian scene, analysts say.

“Berlusconi’s main strength at this point may be his ability to keep disparate groups working together,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University. “Given the problems most political parties are having, that’s not an insignificant strength.”

A three-party coalition led by Forza Italia took almost 40 percent of the vote in Sicily on Nov. 5, more than 5 percentage points better than the Five-Star Movement and more than 20 points ahead of the Democratic Party, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a close political ally and friend of former President Barack Obama. Although much of northern Italy is less-friendly electoral territory for Mr. Berlusconi, the results suggest that his coalition has the inside track for national elections expected in February or March and that he could have a decisive say in any coalition government formed after the vote.

“We are the only alternative,” Mr. Berlusconi exulted as the Sicilian results were coming in.

Italian renaissance

It is a dramatic change from 2011, when Mr. Berlusconi was all but written off after stepping down once again as prime minister. He was engulfed in legal scandals, such as hiring underage prostitutes and paying bribes to influence-peddling and false accounting. Under his leadership, interest rates for Italian government debt rose so high that economists said the country was just weeks away from default. Pollsters said that less than 1 in 6 Italians approved of his performance.

In one high-profile case, Mr. Berlusconi, then 74, was accused of paying 17-year-old Moroccan-born erotic dancer Karima El Mahroug — best known by her nickname “Ruby the Heart-stealer” — for sex. When Miss El Mahroug was arrested in Milan on charges of shoplifting, Mr. Berlusconi called police from the sidelines of a summit in Paris to appeal for her release. He claimed she was the granddaughter of Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt.

Mr. Berlusconi famously coined the term “bunga bunga” to refer to orgies he hosted at his villas in Sardinia and Milan, featuring the media tycoon along with foreign leaders and prominent Italians reportedly enjoying the favors of dozens of young prostitutes.

Mr. Berlusconi brushed off the accusations at the time, at one point joking with supporters: “When pollsters asked Italian women if they would be willing to have sex with me, 30 percent said, ‘Sure, why not?’ The other 70 percent said, ‘What? Again?’”

Not all voters welcome the turn of events. Some sound resigned to the prospect of yet another Berlusconi comeback.

“This is just a matter of convenience,” said Marco Lillini, 62, a retired commercial pilot. “People are sick of politics, and they have short memories. So in desperation, some will turn to a familiar name like Berlusconi.”

Mr. Berlusconi is basking in the success of his party’s victory in Sicily and his return to center stage. Italy’s poorer southern regions have always been friendly to the populist billionaire’s style of politics, and he campaigned hard in recent weeks to do well there. Afterward, he predicted Italian voters were ready to vote for him as a representative of “constructive change based on sincerity, competence and experience.”

Next up for Mr. Berlusconi is a ruling on his appeal against the ban on holding public office before 2019. The European Court of Justice is expected to decide on his case before the end of the year.

Regardless of the outcome, most political commentators think it’s unlikely Mr. Berlusconi will manage to become prime minister again, even if parties allied to him do well in next year’s national vote.

“Berlusconi is more viable now than he had been, but he’s almost surely too polarizing to pull together a ruling coalition,” said Fabio De Nardis, a professor of political sociology at Italy’s University of Salento. “I see him having more potential to become a kind of behind-the-scenes power broker with a big say in setting government priorities.”

That notion is likely to send shivers down the spines of supporters of the European Union, which is already reeling from Brexit and success of anti-establishment political parties in several EU states.

It is also anathema to anyone hoping for a period of relative calm and civil discourse in the country’s politics.

“It’s surprising and disappointing to me that in this day and age a figure like Berlusconi can still be taken seriously despite everything he’s done,” said 34-year-old Elise Sanders, a native of Gaffney, South Carolina, who is working in Italy as a teacher. “When will the public learn how to reject ridiculous figures like him?”

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