Berlusconi Tries a Political Comeback

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Mario Laporta / AFP / Getty

Berlusconi plans to found a new party as Veltroni heads the Democrats.

There he was, commanding an Italian piazza like only he knows how. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister and ever unpredictable media mogul, had come to the center of Milan on Sunday for yet another coup de théâtre: to announce the formation of a new political party, a move meant to inject some life into the country's sagging center-right opposition. But 13 years after entering politics by founding the hokey yet effectively named "Forza Italia!" (Go Italy!) party, the 71-year-old Berlusconi seemed to be improvising when reporters asked him the name of the new political entity. "The People's Party," he said, pausing. "Of Freedom."

Or maybe not. By Tuesday, it still wasn't clear precisely what the party's name would be. What's more clear: the man once considered one of Europe's most revolutionary, if problematic, politicians (and a precious ally for U.S. President George W. Bush) is teetering on the edge of irrelevance. Indeed, it increasingly appears that his multi-billion dollar fortune, which includes ownership of the three biggest private TV channels and numerous publishing holdings, are all that keep him at the center of debate. Eighteen months after narrowly losing his re-election bid to the more conventional Romano Prodi, Berlusconi has not been able to rally enough support among a divided opposition to knock an equally weak and fractured center-left from power.

Berlusconi's surprise announcement was in large part an attempt to respond to the fusion of the two largest parties from the ruling coalition into the newly christened Democratic Party, headed by Rome's popular mayor Walter Veltroni. But hope for any such similar merger on the center-right was quickly squashed by Berlusconi's purported allies. Leader of the second-largest opposition party, Gianfranco Fini, said Monday he wouldn't even consider uniting with Berlusconi under the new party. In general, disaffection with politics in Italy is running high. Berlusconi had once presented himself as an Italian version of Margaret Thatcher (and pre-cursor to Nicolas Sarkozy): a free market reformer ready to shake up the status quo and social welfare state in old Europe. But in his five-year reign from 2001 to 2006, Berlusconi was unable to overcome divisions among his allies or resist his own focus on protecting his business and judicial interests to produce real reform.

Fini and several others, are just hoping the man dubbed "Il Cavaliere" will quietly fade into the sunset, and make room for them to lead the center-right. But don't count on it. Berlusconi watchers — and doubters — have learned over the years not to count him out too quickly. In the weeks leading up to the April 2006 election, Berlusconi trailed by double digits in the polls. But then the Old Silvio kicked into gear: he made unrealistic but enticing promises to eliminate the housing tax, at a small meeting of business leaders, he used a vulgar expression to describe his opponents — then he repeated the same word to thousands at a basketball arena in Naples. Instead of losing by 10 percentage points, he lost by a few thousand votes. Now he must again find a way to reconnect with the People beyond naming a party after them.