Italy's next moral compass? Berlusconi, 85, eyes presidency

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FILE - Italian former Premier and Forza Italia (Go Italy) party leader, Silvio Berlusconi, smiles during the recording of the Italian state television RAI, Porta a Porta (Door To Door) TV talk show in Rome Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Italy is poised to elect a new president, a figure who is supposed to serve as the nation's moral compass and foster unity by being above the political fray. Silvio Berlusconi thinks he fits the bill. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

ROME – Italy is poised to elect a new president, meant to serve as the nation’s moral compass and foster unity by rising above the political fray.

Silvio Berlusconi thinks he fits the bill.

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The billionaire media mogul and three times premier, who entered politics nearly 30 years ago with his Forza Italia party, is maneuvering to add Italy’s highest office to his resume.

No matter that he had a tax fraud conviction which got him expelled from the Senate. As for his moral example, the 85-year-old has long shrugged off outrage over his dalliances with young women at his “bunga bunga” soirees, once declaring “I’m no saint." In the most notorious case, he was ultimately acquitted of charges that he allegedly paid for sex with an underage girl.

From his latest villa on the Appia Antica, the ancient Roman consular road, Berlusconi, has for weeks been lobbying lawmakers outside his center-right fold for their votes when they elect the nation’s next head of state for a seven-year term on Jan. 24.

By Tuesday, lawmaker and prominent art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, whom Berlusconi had tasked with scouting for support, indicated that prospects for nailing down sufficient votes were looking shaky

But whether Berlusconi might decide to bow out was unclear.

The new president will be selected by a total of 1,009 Grand Electors — lawmakers of both the lower Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, plus five senators-for life and special regional representatives. The first three rounds of voting require a two-thirds majority. After that, the threshold drops to a simple majority, 505 votes, and that's Berlusconi's target.

“There is a kind of megalomania about this man from the start" of his business career, and he would love to "top off his career with the highest office in the country,'' said John Harper, emeritus professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) in Bologna.

Berlusconi “might give it a try if he has any doubts as to the numbers, and see if he’s anywhere near 500,’’ Harper ventured. Or, if convinced the numbers aren't there, Berlusconi could renounce his candidacy, and support someone else. "And he’ll come out looking as the man who guarantees (national) stability and has made a great gesture of sacrifice” by withdrawing, Harper said in a phone interview.

Berlusconi's two main partners in a center-right bloc, Matteo Salvini, who leads the anti-migrant League, and Giorgia Meloni, who heads the nationalist far-right Brothers of Italy, publicly backed his quest for the presidential palace on the Quirinal Hill.

But keen on avoiding any embarrassment for the bloc ahead of elections for Parliament, due by spring 2023, Salvini is also pressing Berlusconi to guarantee victory or step aside.

With it “extremely improbable” that Berlusconi could snag the needed votes, it would become a matter of when “he passes from candidate to kingmaker’’ by shifting his bloc’s votes behind someone else, said political scientist Giovanni Orsina, a professor in the LUISS university School of Government in Rome.

Former Premier Enrico Letta, who heads the Democratic Party, blasted the center-right’s decision last week to back Berlusconi as “a profoundly wrong choice.”

“Every political (party) leader is divisive, but when we think of Silvio Berlusconi, in the history of these 25 years, it’s difficult to think of a political chief more divisive than him,” Letta told his party.

Berlusconi has long been dogged by political opponents' contentions of conflict of interest, since his business empire includes Italy’s three main private TV networks.

Earlier this month, a few hundred protesters turned out in the heart of Rome chanting: “the Quirinale is not a bunga bunga” party.

The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Roberto Fico, a leader of the populist 5-Star Movement, told state TV in an interview this week that Italy’s president must be someone with “high morality.”

Berlusconi has struggled over the years with heart and other health problems and was hospitalized for COVID-19.

The current head of state, Sergio Mattarella, whose term expires on Feb. 3, has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to run again for president. Mattarella, who began his political career as a Christian Democrat, was a judge on the constitutional court when he was elected head of state in 2015.

For decades, the president's role was viewed as chiefly ceremonial, although the head of state can dissolve Parliament if the legislature seems hopelessly gridlocked. But recent presidents have taken a more dynamic role.

Mattarella last year tapped Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief, to head a pandemic-unity government embracing parties from the left to the right. Draghi succeeded populist Premier Giuseppe Conte, after confidence ebbed — even among his allies — that the latter could shepherd Italy's economy and society through the ravages of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Draghi, whose “whatever it takes” strategy has been largely credited with saving the euro currency during the last decade’s financial crisis, has been coy when repeatedly asked by reporters if he wants to be president, but he has also left the door open.

Any bowing out of the bid for the presidency by Berlusconi would largely be greeted by relief by European officials, “especially in the context of Italy's restored prestige, with Mattarella and Draghi raising the profile of the country” on the continent, Harper said.

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