/

Once ridiculed, Berlusconi has last laugh as the new power behind throne

AFP-JIJI

Guess who is back? The real winner as Italy’s long political crisis comes to an end is none other than Silvio Berlusconi, a scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon and international figure of fun.

The 76-year-old former prime minister is not expected to be included in the new Cabinet being set up by moderate leftist Enrico Letta, but there is no doubt among political observers that he will be the power behind the throne.

“Berlusconi cannot hide his delight about how this crisis has turned out,” said Stefano Folli, a columnist for business daily Il Sole 24 Ore. Claudio Tito, a commentator for leftwing newspaper La Repubblica, said the protracted deadlock had effectively handed Berlusconi “a blank check.”

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party came a very close second to a center-left coalition in February elections, receiving nearly a third of the vote mainly on the back of promises to ease taxes on austerity-hit Italians. The main leftist Democratic Party initially ruled out any alliance with Berlusconi but had to change tack when its efforts to woo lawmakers from the antiestablishment 5-Star Movement were repeatedly rebuffed.

Dismissed as a spent force in politics just a few months ago, Berlusconi insisted on a coalition government and was able to position himself as a moderate statesman working for the interests of Italy. The Il Giornale daily, which is owned by the Berlusconi family, crowed that he was “taking the country on his shoulders . . . and provoking universal consensus.”

Berlusconi said the only alternative to a coalition would be repeat elections — opinion polls indicate his party would win any new polls, primarily due to a drop in popularity for the 5-Star Movement.

“The real victor in this whole crisis is Berlusconi,” said Stefano Rodota, an academic and civil rights advocate who was put forward by the 5-Star Movement as its presidential candidate but was defeated by Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday. Berlusconi “is imposing his conditions” on the new government, Rodota was quoted as saying in an interview with leftist daily Il Manifesto.

But some analysts pointed out that was not quite true, as Berlusconi would have preferred Giuliano Amato, a former premier with a more neutral reputation, to be nominated for prime minister. Other commentators said Berlusconi may be aiming for the presidency once the newly elected Napolitano resigns early from his seven-year term, as he is expected to do.