Could Silvio Berlusconi return as Italy’s next president?

Silvio Berlusconi gestures before a 2016 soccer match between his AC Milan and SS Lazio in Milan, Italy.

Marco Luzzani | Getty Images

Italy is about to start the process of electing a new president, with a number of old faces among the contenders, one of whom is former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

A media magnate and business tycoon, 85 year-old Berlusconi is a veteran of Italian politics and not without controversy. A politician of the old-school, Berlusconi has been prime minister in four Italian governments since the 1990s, weathering numerous sex and financial scandals — and subsequent legal battles — over the years, as well as political storms which are frequent in Italy.

The first round of parliamentary voting to decide Italy’s new head of state, which is largely a ceremonial role but an important one nonetheless, kicks off on Monday. Current Prime Minister Mario Draghi is the likely frontrunner in the race but a right-wing alliance backing Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, could impede his candidacy.

Just over 1,000 so-called “grand electors” take part in the voting process to find a successor to Sergio Mattarella who is stepping down from the post. The electors are made up of Italian lawmakers and senators for the most part, as well as regional representatives, with most electors affiliated to diverse political parties but some (just over 100) that are independent.

There is likely to be several rounds of voting during the election with the first three ballots requiring a two-thirds majority (or 673 votes) of the 1,009 voters to elect a president. Starting from the fourth ballot, an absolute majority of 505 votes is required for a candidate to be elected. It’s rare for a president to be elected in the first rounds given the two-thirds majority needed.

Can Berlusconi do it?

Whether Berlusconi can muster enough support is uncertain and he is reliant on independents throwing their support behind him.

Guidogiorgio Bodrato, an economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note Wednesday that “the outcome of the vote is open,” noting that with just days to go until the electoral college starts to vote on Jan.24, Berlusconi is the only major contender who has declared his interest openly.

Still, the former prime minister cannot be sure that he will get all votes from the three parties (Forza Italia, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia) that now back him. As it stands, the right-wing alliance of the three center-right and right-wing parties could give him a potential 441 out of the 1,009 votes, but he needs the support of some other smaller parties and independents if he is to win.

“If he does [get support from all the parties in the right-wing alliance] and gets additional support from the centrist Coraggio Italia, he will still fall short of the absolute majority of 505 needed from the fourth round onwards. With a few additional votes, the centre-right/right-wing alliance could elect either Berlusconi or another president of its choice. Matteo Renzi’s centrist Italia Viva could add up to 44 votes. This would get them closer to a majority: with around 30 votes from unaffiliated members of the chambers, it would reach the required threshold,” Bodrato noted.

“But to convince Renzi and the unaffiliated members to join forces with them, the leaders of the centre-right/right-wing alliance may have to ask Berlusconi to step aside in favour of a less controversial candidate such as Berlusconi’s former chief of staff Gianni Letta, former minister of economics Giulio Tremonti or former mayor of Milan Letizia Moratti,” he noted.

What about Draghi?

Draghi, who is seen as an unofficial presidential candidate for the center-left, is the likeliest contender for the role, although who would replace him as prime minister would spell more uncertainty for Italy.

Draghi came into the office in early 2021 after a government coalition collapse triggered by the withdrawal of the Italia Viva party — clearing the way for a new unity leader. Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, is widely regarded as having managed to steady the often-unwieldy ship that is Italy, inspiring confidence in investors that he can manage its debt-laden economy.

Unsurprisingly, there is vocal opposition to Berlusconi’s candidacy among Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico and left-wing Liberi e Uguali and populist Five Star Movement with various officials stating that Berlusconi’s candidacy is an unacceptable option, preferring a more impartial candidate. Still, so far the parties have not decided on an alternative candidate they can back, according to Italian media reports.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Europe at Eurasia Group, said in a note Thursday that “Berlusconi has long dreamed of being president and has so far held allies on the right, Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini of the League, to their deal to support him (the right had nominally agreed to do so with a view to the three parties running as a bloc in any future election, and in exchange for Berlusconi’s support in blocking a potential electoral law change which would be damaging to his allies).”

“But his candidacy is unacceptable to the left because of his history of changing laws to protect himself and his businesses, criminal convictions and ongoing criminal proceedings.”

‘Zero possibility’

For his part, Matteo Renzi, the leader of the centrist Italia Viva party and also a former prime minister, told CNBC on Thursday that there is “zero possibility” that Berlusconi would be Italy’s next president.

“Please,” he told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe” when asked on Thursday, “there is not possibilities for Silvio Berlusconi to become president of the republic. I know the hypothesis was very interesting for the papers for a lot of reasons but for me there’s zero, zero possibility for Silvio Berlusconi to become president of the republic.”

Renzi said that “there is the possibility for Mario Draghi to become president of the republic but that is a difficult choice for us, the members of the Parliament, because Mario Draghi was and is a great prime minister. He saved Italy last year when we changed government …so he’s a perfect man to be prime minister, but at the same time he could be a great president,” he noted.

“The discussion about Draghi is a real discussion, the discussion about Berlusconi is not,” Renzi added.

Renzi likened the role of the president to that of a “referee” and given that the president holds office for seven years, can offer some much-needed stability to Italian politics.

“But his role could be very important,” he noted, with the president a possible stand-in leader in times of political upheaval. “The decision of next week will be very important not only for this year but the next seven years. Usually in Italy the government changes very rapidly but the president is the most stable institution,” he added.

He expected the winner of the president election to be known by next Thursday or Friday.

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