MILAN – Silvio Berlusconi’s outsized hold on Italian political life over three decades had greatly diminished in recent years, yet the political party that remains fused with his image even in death is critical to the health of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government.
Whether and how Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party survives is quietly being discussed on the inside pages of newspapers and back corridors of parliament, while Italy prepares for a national day of mourning and a state funeral on Wednesday, to be celebrated in Milan’s stately Gothic-era Duomo cathedral.
Berlusconi’s deputy, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, declared on Monday: “We have the duty, as Forza Italia, to move forward, and we will.”
Despite the reassuring words, Forza Italia’s fate is far from secure. Berlusconi’s personal hold on the party makes it vulnerable in his death, experts say, even as it is key to holding up Meloni’s 8-month-old coalition government.
“If the party stands, then the government is OK. But if the party starts to disintegrate you have to see where these people go,’’ said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist who writes for Il Sole 24 Ore. “Meloni needs these votes in the Senate and in the house. Meloni cannot do without that 8%.”
Berlusconi founded Forza Italia in 1994, entering politics as a major corruption scandal created a power vacuum. He briefly renamed it People of Liberty, before returning to the original name after the defection of a one-time political successor.
Forza Italia was the largest vote-winner in its maiden 1994 election, with 21% of the vote, securing Berlusconi's first term as prime minister. He headed his second government after winning 29.4% of the vote in 2001. People of Liberty, which incorporated another political movement, peaked at 37.4% of the vote, returning him to power in 2008.
He led his final government until 2011, when Italy’s spiraling debt crisis forced his resignation, and succession by a government run by technocrats.
By last year’s elections that brought Meloni to power, the Forza Italia movement had shrunk to 8% of the vote, weakened by Berlusconi’s six-year forced absence from politics due to a 2012 tax fraud conviction, the only one that stuck in dozens of trials, and the rise Meloni’s Brothers of Italy on the far-right.
The party's strength was always its mirror image with Berlusconi, whose power and empathy have been remembered even by his critics and opponents. Berlusconi attracted fierce loyalty among a close cadre of political and business collaborators, but also among rank-and-file supporters, many who have hung mementos and placards with words of affection in a hedge at his villa near Milan, where friends and family viewed his body on Tuesday.
But he never quite trusted anyone enough to name a political heir, despite a couple of half-hearted feints, creating room for leadership challenges and further splintering after is death.
“It is not very much a personal party. It is exclusively a personal party,’’ said Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at Rome’s LUISS University who wrote a Berlusconi biography.
Berlusconi never loved sharing the spotlight, and his discomfort with the role switch, with Meloni as premier and him as a junior partner, was evident. Photographers in parliament last fall caught him jotting down unflattering adjectives next to her name: “presumptuous, bossy, arrogant, offensive.”
Even in death, his withering opinion has been cast over the surviving political class. Michele Santoro, a TV presenter and long-time critic of Berlusconi, told La7 private TV Monday that the ex-premier had recently complained in a long phone call about the “inadequacy of the Italian politicians on the right and the left with an incredible lucidity."
Tajani, Berlusconi's long-time confidant, appears best positioned to take over, strengthened by his ties to the center-right European People’s Party, with the next year’s European Parliamentary elections the next major political test. But he could be challenged if the party drops significantly in the polls in the coming months.
“If I were them, I would sit around a table to try to hammer out a deal. It is in their interest to stay together as much as possible,” Orsina said.
Still, few expect the government to face any immediate threats, even if the party does splinter. Most Forza Italia votes would stay on the right, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party or Salvini’s League, with a minor percentage defecting to former Premier Matteo Renzi, who now heads a small centrist party.
“Whatever happens to Forza Italia, I don’t think there is any danger to the government, which is way too strong,’’ Orsina said. “Whatever happens to Forza Italia, these people have nowhere else to go.”
There remains a hypothesis that Berlusconi’s eldest daughter, Marina Berlusconi, would step in to guide the party, at least behind the scenes, to overcome divisions.
“I don’t see the party able to stay together with the bunch of people who are supposedly running it today,’’ said D’Alimonte. “In my opinion, Marina Berlusconi wants to keep the party aligned with Meloni. I think she will continue to play a significant part behind the scenes to keep the party together.”
D’Alimonte said she would be motivated both by loyalty to her father, but also “for corporate interests,” to protect the Mediaset empire that made her father a billionaire.
“One of the most important reasons that the party was founded was to protect the company on the political front,” D’Alimonte said. “It is an insurance policy. The party has always been an insurance policy, and she understands that very well.”