How Berlusconi May Upend the Italian Elections

As vote approaches, political uncertainty grows—and with that fears about Italy’s economy and relationship with the European Union

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GIORGIO PEROTTINO / REUTERS

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waves to supporters during a political rally in Turin, Italy, on Feb. 17, 2013

It was supposed to be an easy victory for the Italian center-left candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani. After all, his opponents include Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister facing trial for underage prostitution; Mario Monti, the technocratic Premier many Italians blame for a year of harsh austerity; and — vacuuming up the protest vote — Beppe Grillo, a bombastic comedian who refuses to campaign on television.

Instead, as Italians head to the polls on Feb. 24 and 25, the result is anything but certain. Bersani has spent much of the past two months watching Berlusconi close the gap between them. Since the beginning of the election season, the former Prime Minister has been ever present on Italian television, both on the channels he owns and those of his competitors. In January, he appeared on a program hosted by two of his most ferocious critics, making a show of walking into the lion’s den, and, in front of a record audience, wiping the floor with them (almost literally; at one point, he used a handkerchief to dust off a chair where one of his opponents had been sitting).

(MORE: Top 10 Worst Silvio Berlusconi Gaffes)

In a campaign that sometimes seemed designed to panic markets, Berlusconi stole headlines by threatening to leave the euro zone if Germany continues to insist on austerity, announcing amnesties for tax evasion and illegal building and pledging to overturn, and even refund, an unpopular housing tax put in place by Monti — moves carefully calibrated to appeal to an electoral base that is largely uneducated and mistrustful of a state that overspends and mismanages their money. “A lot of [Italians] still look at Berlusconi as their savior, or at least the lesser evil,” Robert D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “They might hate him. They might think he’s a crook. They know about bunga bunga [the alleged sex parties at Berlusconi’s mansions]. But they see him as the only one they can trust who won’t raise their taxes.”

As of Feb. 8, the last day on which polls were permitted to be published, Bersani retained a small but significant lead in the national vote, enough to secure the lower house. But to govern, Bersani will also need to win the Senate, where victory is determined by a series of region-by-region contests reminiscent of the Electoral College in the U.S. With some of Italy’s most populous regions too close to call, chances seem high that Bersani will have to hunt outside his coalition for support.

(MORE: Why Mario Monti Is the Most Important Man in Europe)

As a result, Bersani has been making overtures to Monti, openly speculating about seeking the reform-minded technocrat’s support in forming a government. Such a coalition, however, would be broad, ranging from Monti, the country’s most fiscally conservative politician, to traditional leftists, like Nichi Vendola, leader of the Left Ecology Freedom party, who oppose many of Monti’s proposals. “Monti is, to me, the ideal adversary,” says Vendola, adding that Italy’s problems would be best solved by loosening European restrictions on public spending. “The fact that [Bersani's] party has so many different voices [already] constrains him to say very little that’s concrete,” says Marco Damilano, author of a book about Bersani’s Democratic Party. With the addition of Monti, “the contradictions are set to mount, not diminish.”

Casting further doubt on the election result is uncertainty over the validity of polls. In an election year characterized by voter disaffection, some 30% of Italians remain unsure for whom they will cast their ballot or if they will vote at all. The rising popularity of Grillo, the comedian whose rage-against-the-establishment campaign has lifted him into third place in the polls, adds a further wrinkle — as a new phenomenon, nobody is sure from whom he is sucking votes. On Feb. 22, tens of thousands of Italians in Rome risked a cold rain to watch him give the closing speech of his campaign. Meanwhile, leaked election predictions — presented on websites purportedly handicapping horse races — indicate that Monti may be losing support ahead of this weekend’s poll, raising the specter that Bersani might not be able to count on his support. “The only viable government Italy has is a Bersani-Monti government,” says D’Alimonte. “If there’s no Monti in the Senate, it’s a disaster for Italy and for Europe.”

MORE: A Time for Mischief: Will Monti’s Departure Mean Berlusconi’s Return?