Berlusconi's Last Dance: A Sharp Right Turn?
With a now-leaderless Democratic Party and no charismatic successor to take over from Berlusconi, his one-time backers may migrate to more extremist parties.
ROME — Italy once had what was known as Berlusconiano voters.
Conservative by virtue of social class, they were also skittish, indifferent, anarchic, and wary of institutions, professional politicians and intellectuals alike — impulses that can hardly be described as middle-of-the-road. And yet, with open arms they embraced Silvio Berlusconi's compromise between Italian anti-politics and political moderation, and comfortably settled into the center-right of the bipolar system of that time.
But the wave of changes over the last decade — the great recession, the sovereign debt crisis, migration — has profoundly altered the situation.
Aside from the traditional dialectic between the left and the right, a new political fault line has emerged, the fruit of opposing views on at least three fronts: between the old and the new, between the elite and the people, between the globalists (or pro-European Union) and the localists (or sovereignists). In short, the old European elite on one side, and on the other the new nationalist-populist forces. At least that's how they describe themselves.
The gulf between those who defended the status quo and those who opposed it has now widened, and among the discontented, those who were on the political right have adopted more extreme positions.
Add to that the gradual weakening of the leadership of Berlusconi, now 83 years old, and the result is that his previously successful ability to synthesize the politically moderate and protest forces (or, if one prefers, the center and the right) is now in crisis.
And so, good old Berlusconism now finds itself trapped between a position of conserving the status quo — a job ably managed until now by the center-left Democratic Party, which is being more and more decried as representing "The Establishment" — and a position of political protest from the right, which increasingly identifies itself more with the League party and, to a lesser extent, the far-right Brothers of Italy.
Today Berlusconi's party, the center-right Forza Italia, is entering the final phase of this story. Under Berlusconi"s leadership, the ambiguity inherent in a party "of protest and of governance," of anti-politics and of moderatism, was an asset. Now it's a handicap.
While the Democratic Party and the League appear to be very far apart from one another politically, from an electoral standpoint the space (and, consequently, the slice of voters) that separates them is quite narrow, because public opinion has also polarized.
Moreover, the Democratic Party was headed by Matteo Renzi, who has just left to found his own centrist party, Italia Viva, leaving the so-called Establishment effectively leaderless. And to make matters worse, partly because of the overbearing presence of Berlusconi, no potential leader has emerged in Forza Italia with the same communicative impact to open up and own an electoral space that doesn't as yet exist.
Will the center-right space be invaded by Salvini , intent on recreating Berlusconi's old synthesis?
In conclusion, the electorate that Berlusconi built for himself has no successor in his own party, but is left to be absorbed by parties further to the right. Hence a possibility that is even being considered by Mara Carfagna — the former model and television showgirl that Berlusconi appointed minister of equal opportunity, and who now represents the moderates in the Forza Italia party — to jump ship, create a new party with the president of Liguria, Giovanni Toti, and broker an alliance with the League.
The creation of such a party would face two not inconsequential roadblocks. In a scenario where the electoral gulf between the center and the right remains intact, this new party would have to figure out if and how it is possible to remain on the right with the League while at the same time maintaining a clear and distinct moderate identity.
Recent incidents are emblematic of this dilemma: Carfagna butting heads with the League's Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia's decision to vote against creating an extraordinary parliamentary commission against intolerance, racism, anti-Semitism and inciting hate and violence.
Conversely, in a scenario where the right and the center move together once again, the game would involve seeing if the center-right space won't instead be invaded by Salvini himself, intent on recreating Berlusconi's old synthesis of protest politics and moderatism, this time on his own with the League, a potential move that — amid a thousand ambiguities — already shows signs of taking place.
*Giovanni Orsina is professor of Contemporary History at the Carlo Guido Liberal International University of Social Studies in Rome.