Who’s afraid of Silvio Berlusconi?

Only four days to go to the Italian election (it’s held over two days, Sunday and Monday), and still all anyone wants to talk about is Silvio Berlusconi. The media are breathless with reports of his potential comeback, unwilling to imagine that they have seen the last of the 76-year old.

I’m reluctant to criticise them for that, because Berlusconi is a genuinely fascinating character. I’ve written about him quite a bit myself over the years (see here and here, for example). But it’s reached the point where we risk misleading the public about what’s actually likely to happen in Italy.

Last night on Foreign Correspondent Emma Alberici presented a very interesting report, but Berlusconi again got the lion’s share of air time. Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the actual front-runner in the election, seemed to appear only to discuss what he would do to put Berlusconi behind bars.

So let’s conduct a bit of a reality check. It’s fairly simple, because opinion polling in Italy has already finished; it’s unlawful to publish polls in the last two weeks of the campaign. Wikipedia has the complete set. If we break them down into averages for each of the final three weeks, this is what we get:

19/1 – 25/1 26/1 – 1/2 2/2 – 8/2
Centre-Left 36.1 34.9 34.6
Centre-Right 28.0 28.4 29.1
Centre 14.4 14.1 13.6
Populist 13.3 14.2 15.1
Far Left 4.7 4.8 4.6
Others 3.8 3.6 3.2


(I expect some Italian version of Nate Silver has already done this in much more sophisticated fashion, but my Italian isn’t good enough to be able to find it.)

So yes, there is certainly a trend away from the centre-left. But it’s very slight, and the chance of the right overtaking them in just another two weeks is slim indeed. And there’s very little variation between different pollsters; the centre-left is consistently in the mid-30s and the right in the high 20s.

Moreover, Italy’s electoral system translates votes into seats in a very predictable way: the allocation in the lower house is proportional, except that the coalition that wins a plurality gets bonus seats to ensure it a majority. That will almost certainly be Bersani and his “Italy – Common Good”.

The Senate is more tricky; there the proportionality and the bonus allocation work on a regional rather than a national level, so there is no guarantee of an overall majority. Also those under 25 cannot vote, so it tends to be more conservative. Even so, there is no real chance of Berlusconi winning a majority there; at worst, comedian Beppe Grillo and his populist Five Star Movement might hold the balance of power.

Alberici also voiced some surprise at the poor showing of the centrist group led by technocrat prime minister Mario Monti. But in a developed democracy like Italy that’s not surprising. Most parties rely on tribal loyalties that are of long standing – building a new movement is a big task, and not one that an establishment figure like Monti is really cut out for. Bersani will probably need his support in the Senate, but he is unlikely to be the king-maker he might have hoped.

So while no-one should pretend to certainty, it’s most probable that Berlusconi will be still out in the cold next week, and that he will have little to look forward to but a long series of legal battles. There’s an element of sadness in that; as I put it in 2010:

Compared to many less corrupt and more principled leaders, the harm that Berlusconi has done barely registers.

George W Bush and Tony Blair never took bribes or cavorted with prostitutes, but they caused untold human suffering and laid waste whole countries. Our own John Howard, faced with a refugee problem several orders of magnitude less than Italy’s, chose to thumb his nose at international law in a way that horrified European opinion.

Yet they enjoy a safe and comfortable retirement. There is little justice in the world.


One thought on “Who’s afraid of Silvio Berlusconi?

  1. Speaking as somebody who lived there when Forza Italia first got into power, then some 7 years into his second incarnation, he was and is a scourge. After andreotti the country was crying out for cohesion, courage against the mafia and persuading the public that politicians werent all corrupt and bonking showgirls. Instead they fell for the ruse that if someone could become megarich theyd be good at running the country. We still that kind of weird facile thinking today.


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