Silvio Berlusconi is back. Again. The three-time Italian premier, who has made a career out of rebounding from legal woes, personal scandal, heart trouble and political setbacks, announced Thursday he is running for the European Parliament in May elections.
The 82-year-old Berlusconi said he wanted to “bring my voice to a Europe that should change, a Europe that has lost profound thinking about the world.” Berlusconi had been barred from running for public office for nearly five years due to a tax fraud conviction. Citing his good conduct, a court last year ruled that he could once again run. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which dominated Italian politics for a quarter-century, is now polling in single digits behind the two parties in western Europe’s first populist government, the right-wing League and the anti-establishment 5-Stars.
He announced his campaign on the same day Italy’s government unveiled details of how it intends to fulfill two campaign promises made by the coalition parties: providing a basic income to needy Italians looking for work and reforming unpopular pension regulations. At a press conference in Rome, Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio proudly announced the government had “founded a new welfare state in Italy…a revolution in the world of work.” Media mogul Berlusconi stressed in his first campaign remarks that he wanted to see a united center-right in Europe. It was evidence of his continued hope that the League, which was a junior partner in all his governments, would eventually abandon the 5-Stars at the national level and come back to the traditional center-right fold. “A center-right that is united and victorious, with its values and ideals, is the future of Italy, Europe and the world,” Berlusconi said in Sardinia, where he keeps a huge estate.
In October 2012, Berlusconi was found guilty of committing tax fraud as part of his vast business dealings. Italy’s highest criminal court upheld his conviction the following year. Because a 2012 law stipulated that anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison was ineligible to hold or run for public office for six years, Berlusconi had to relinquish his Senate seat. He never left politics, however, and continued to lead Forza Italia even as heart problems slowed him down and newspaper headlines focused more on the trials involving his infamous “bunga bunga” parties and his costly divorce from his second wife. Forza Italia lost the popularity it once enjoyed while the more hard-line League broadened its appeal beyond its northern Italy base and capitalized on the anti-migrant, nationalistic sentiment that has swept Europe in recent years.
Berlusconi referred to his advanced age in kicking off his European Parliament campaign, but framed it as a benefit of an elder statesman merely seeking to defend European values against global powers such as China. “At the beautiful age I have, I’ve decided out of a sense of responsibility to go to Europe where profound thinking about the future of the world is missing,” he said. “I’ll be there, and I pray that God gives me the strength to convince others.”q