Silvio Berlusconi makes his comeback

At the ripe old age of 81, Silvio Berlusconi is emerging as the unlikely kingmaker in the Italian general elections in March.

The media magnate and former prime minister — arguably the godfather of modern populism, having launched his Forza Italia party 24 years ago — is now positioning himself as an anti-populist bulwark.

Ever the consummate deal maker, he has brokered a right-wing alliance for the elections with the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party and the anti-European Union, anti-immigrant Northern League.

The group currently seems to be the only contender to gain more votes than the ultra-populist Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by maverick comedian Beppe Grillo.

On Monday, Berlusconi flew to Brussels in an attempt to sell his bloc as the responsible choice in the upcoming election.

He met with other center-right politicians including Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament and a member of Forza Italia, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, according to Berlusconi’s own social-media accounts.

Fiscal hawk?

There Berlusconi reportedly pledged to keep the Italian budget deficit within 3 percent of gross domestic product in accordance with EU rules — quite a change for a man whose government saw Italy’s debt soar to 120 percent of gross domestic product at the height of Europe’s debt crisis.

“Until two months ago he was moving to the right to appease the Northern League,” Lorenzo Codogno, visiting professor at the London School of Economics and former chief economist at the Italian treasury, told CNN. “Now he is moving in the direction of reassuring Brussels that he is on the moderate wing of the political spectrum.”

Amid fears that victory for the anti-EU Five Star party would present a threat to the single currency — and concerns over the indebted Italian banking sector’s potential to trigger a new financial crisis — senior Brussels politicians appear to be prepared to welcome him back into the fold.

“Berlusconi is a great statesman, he doesn’t need rehabilitating,” Manfred Weber, the conservative German politician and head of the center-right group in the European Parliament, was reported as saying by the Italian broadcaster RAI.

Widely mocked in the Italian media for his numerous facelifts and hair transplants, Berlusconi knows some tweaks may be needed for his latest comeback.

He owns vast swaths of the Italian media, and during numerous past election campaigns he reached out to voters by simply turning up in his television studios.

With such a direct line to Italians, he didn’t feel the need for social media until now. He joined Facebook late last year, and already has a million followers.

Rise to empire

Berlusconi began his career as a cruise ship singer before making a fortune in real estate and starting a media empire that grew into the Mediaset conglomerate, a global player in the media business.

Berlusconi also owned the Italian soccer club AC Milan for more than 30 years, harnessing the power of the beautiful game with his Forza Italia slogan, which had been a chant of Italian soccer fans. In politics, he has been prime minister in four governments.

It seems unlikely he will lead the country again — from the front, at least. Internationally infamous for allegations surrounding his “bunga bunga” sex parties, he was expelled from Parliament and is currently barred from public office following convictions for bribery and tax fraud.

Affectionately known as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) in Italy, Berlusconi is trying to overturn the ban at the European Court of Human Rights, but it is unlikely the case will be heard in time.

In his latest incarnation, Berlusconi is promoting himself not just as a fiscal grown-up, but also as an animal lover: His current policies include free veterinarian bills and an end to tax on pet food. He is also pledging to introduce a flat tax for everyone and a minimum income of 1,000 euros for pensioners.

He is also a very good friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin — the pair have holidayed together more than once.

Trump comparisons

During the 2016 US election campaign, many compared Donald Trump to Berlusconi. Berlusconi said on his Facebook page he has never met the US President but understands why Americans voted for him. “For many years Donald Trump came into American’s homes as a TV star,” he said.

Berlusconi, who has been married twice and has five children, is 48 years older than his current girlfriend, former showgirl Francesca Pascale. Trump is only 23 years older than his wife. Berlusconi is also richer than the US President, according to the 2017 Forbes billionaires list, coming in at number 199, while Trump landed at 248.

Even if his legal difficulties mean he cannot hold office, with his infinite access to Italian television screens, there is little to stop Berlusconi being the face as well as the brain behind the next Italian government.