- - Sunday, January 23, 2022

ROME — Irrepressible populist billionaire and four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi bowed out over the weekend from a long-shot race to be Italy’s next president, a capstone to a remarkable career checkered by accusations of corruption, mob links and policy U-turns while making “bunga bunga” a globally recognized term for high-living and political excess.

Only the onetime cruise ship crooner could have turned Italy’s normally boring presidential election into a global news story. His departure from the race appears to be the political obituary for an 85-year-old campaigner who has defied rivals and pundits so many times.  

Debate on a new president, an office with high prestige but limited constitutional powers, is set to begin Monday. Mr. Berlusconi’s decision to throw his hat into the ring upended the usual course of Italian politics, and many see his withdrawal as the end of an era.

Mr. Berlusconi insisted he had a path to victory but said he was quitting the race in the name of national unity.

“I decided to take another step on the path of national responsibility,” he said Saturday in a Facebook post asking his supporters not to cast their votes for him.

Many doubted Mr. Berlusconi’s claim that he could have won the race, but the political establishment had a sense of general relief that he didn’t try to prove them wrong.

“With his retirement, we take a step forward and begin serious talks among political forces to offer the country a high-profile, authoritative, widely shared figure,” former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tweeted over the weekend. He labeled Mr. Berlusconi’s candidacy for the job “unacceptable.” Mr. Conte and other center-left political parties vowed to do all they could to block Mr. Berlusconi’s bid.

Mr. Berlusconi checked into a hospital for what aides called routine tests after his announcement. Still, he isn’t fading off into the sunset. His center-right Forza Italia party and its conservative allies could have a major say in who gets the presidency in the political haggling to come.

Italy’s presidential contests normally are low-key, long-winded and easy to ignore. Members of Parliament and regional representatives pluck a high-integrity, elderly statesman out of retirement and elect him to a seven-year term as president. In that role, the president attends state funerals and coronations and receives foreign dignitaries. The post is not entirely irrelevant. On occasion, the president gives his stamp of approval to new Cabinet ministers, referees the process over who can try to form a new government or calls a national referendum.

For the octogenarian Mr. Berlusconi, the job could have been a kind of palate cleanser: a nonpartisan post that would consign controversies to the history books and allow him to write a final chapter to an improbable political career.

The race came with familiar Berlusconian trappings.

The candidate threw his media empire’s considerable weight and political connections behind his presidential bid. Il Giornale, the Milan newspaper Mr. Berlusconi owns, ran a full-page ad this month listing his accomplishments — among them, “overseeing the end of the Cold War” — and his television networks ran dozens of favorable news segments. He has reportedly spent hours on the phone calling in favors from lawmakers and threatening to pull his political party’s support for the current coalition government if he was not selected for the job. 

Political realities

A sharp break for the colorless and largely forgettable Italian prime ministers of the past, Mr. Berlusconi has confounded his critics many times. But the vast majority of political observers say there are many reasons that a Berlusconi presidency did not happen. 

“Let’s say it wouldn’t be a great image for our country,” said Italian senator and activist Emma Bonino. Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister, called Mr. Berlusconi’s candidacy a “fabrication” invented by the mogul’s allies.

More than 1,000 “grand electors,” including lawmakers and select regional delegates, will choose the president by secret balloting starting Monday. Several rounds of voting are expected before the electors choose a successor to President Sergio Mattarella, whose term ends Feb. 3.

Before the holidays, protesters in Rome held up signs saying Mr. Berlusconi made Italy a “laughingstock” of Italy as prime minister. They said the Quirinale Palace, the president’s residence, is no place for the “bunga bunga” parties long associated with Mr. Berlusconi’s carefully curated roguish image.

The biggest reason Mr. Berlusconi won’t become Italy’s 13th postwar president, according to political scientist and editorial writer Roberto D’Alimonte, was the simplest of all. 

“The calculus is simple: He just doesn’t have anywhere close to the number of votes he needs in Parliament,” Mr. D’Alimonte said in an interview before Mr. Berlusconi pulled out. “Mark my words: There is no chance Italy’s next president will be Silvio Berlusconi.”

Mr. D’Alimonte, who teaches at Rome’s Luiss University, said there are many reasons the upcoming elections are important but Mr. Berlusconi’s candidacy isn’t one of them.

Italy, Europe and the financial markets are all in a fragile state” amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, Mr. D’Alimonte said. “It’s important that Italy’s government remains stable and reliable. That’s why the stakes are so high for this election.”

Plenty of other plausible (if less colorful) candidates are in the running. Among the names appearing in the Italian media in recent weeks are Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister, and Paolo Gentiloni, another former prime minister now serving as a European commissioner for economy. Elisabetta Casellati, the president of the Italian Senate, is another potential candidate for the job, which a woman has never held.

The odds-on favorite is Mario Draghi, Italy’s current prime minister. Mr. Draghi is a former president of the European Central Bank credited with saving the euro currency during the 2011-2012 financial crisis.

Since taking over as Italy’s head of government last year, Mr. Draghi can take the credit for organizing one of Europe’s most aggressive coronavirus vaccination campaigns. His personal prestige has helped assuage investor fears by keeping the government’s borrowing costs low.

Why would Mr. Draghi, 74, trade in the prime minister’s sash for the lower-profile and less-powerful president’s job? One factor would be Italy’s fractured political environment. As president, Mr. Draghi could remain influential while floating above the fray for a full seven-year term.

“The president can’t make policy the way the prime minister can, but with the right figure in the prime minister’s office, the president can wield a great deal of power,” Mr. D’Alimonte said. “I think there is strong support among political- and private-sector leaders for Draghi to become president, and I don’t think Draghi will take the job unless there’s an agreement in place ahead of time for him to have a prime minister he’ll be able to work with.”

One more complication follows the weekend’s events: Mr. Berlusconi, in quitting the race, said he would work to block Mr. Draghi’s election as president. He said the government Mr. Draghi heads as prime minister should stay in power to address the COVID-19 crisis and the economy through next year. A national unity candidate is considered essential because neither the parties of the left nor the right are seen as having the votes on their own to push through a nominee.

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