The death of Silvio Berlusconi, ex-Prime Minister and media tycoon, opens a period of uncertainty not only within his party, but in Italian politics as a whole, writes Giovanni Capoccia
Once the obituaries and the polemics are done, the political fallout from ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi will continue to climb the political agenda of Italian political parties. Berlusconi held complete control of his party, Forza Italia. His departure throws the party’s internal equilibria into disarray. This may also have consequences for Italy's government stability.
Forza Italia (FI) was once the dominant force in the centre-right. But it has declined markedly in recent years, obtaining only 8.1% of the votes in the September 2022 elections. Despite this, FI remains numerically necessary for Meloni’s government to stay in office.
Initially, Berlusconi also acted as a 'guarantor' of the government's moderation in matters of foreign and EU policy. We should see the appointment to Foreign Minister of Antonio Tajani, one of the highest-ranked FI politicians and ex-President of the European Parliament, in this light. Lately, Meloni’s reiteration of Italy’s loyal adherence to NATO, her steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine, and her careful manoeuvring in the EU (short of a few squabbles with France over immigration), have made the 'international guarantor' role of FI and Berlusconi largely unnecessary. But the issue of the numerical importance of FI MPs for the government majority remains.
Berlusconi was no longer the leader of the centre-right. And FI has not been the hegemonic force right-of-centre of the Italian political spectrum for several years now. Still, FI's MPs – 44 in the 400-strong Lower Chamber; 18 in the 200-member Senate – are crucial for the survival of Meloni's government.
While its leader was alive, FI was a personalistic party. Berlusconi was its absolute dominus. Careers within the party depended almost exclusively on his decisions and whether or not the individual was in Berlusconi’s personal favour. His family also guarantees the party’s debt (about €90m) to this day.
Berlusconi never anointed an heir apparent, even when it grew clear that his leadership had become less effective than in the past. Several centre-right and right-wing politicians have tried to position themselves as Berlusconi’s successors at the party's helm. Gianfranco Fini, Pierferdinando Casini, Raffaele Fitto, and Angelino Alfano are just a few. But all have been internally defeated and cast out. Some of them, like Fini and Alfano, have left politics. Others, like Casini and Fitto, continued their political activity under other banners.
Recently, health problems forced Berlusconi to delegate the internal management of his party to his personal collaborators. Most recently, this was his partner Marta Fascina, who was also elected as an MP last September. This power arrangement will not survive Berlusconi's death. Indeed, it is not clear that FI will continue to exist in its current form, with its current level of support, or even at all.
Italy’s political centre is divided between FI and the splinter party Noi Moderati (Us Moderates), who support the government, and the two small opposition parties Azione (Action) and ex-PM Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (Italy Alive). With Berlusconi's departure and FI’s likely destabilisation, the volatility and fragmentation at the centre of the Italian political spectrum are likely to increase further. This opens a period of uncertainty. Making point predictions is impossible, but we can imagine two 'polar opposite' scenarios.
In the first, the centre space is occupied by a party that – at least for now – stays in coalition with Meloni and Salvini. This could be FI itself if it manages to elect another leader quickly, for instance Foreign Minister Tajani himself. Or it could be another political container.
In this scenario, the Italian party system and the government coalition remain essentially as they are now. A centrist party remains alongside Salvini’s Lega as a junior partner of Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia. Even this reassuring (for the government) scenario, however, does not guarantee stability beyond the short term. It is unlikely that any new leader would command the same amount of loyalty and discipline from MPs as Berlusconi did. After a while, internal divisions could still destabilise the party and, with it, the government.
The opposite scenario is that Berlusconi's departure (and possibly his family’s decision to withdraw the guarantee of the party’s debt) spells death for FI. The centrist part of the government coalition then fails to reorganise quickly. In this case, Meloni's government has an immediate problem.
Many FI politicians remained in Berlusconi's declining party out of loyalty to their leader – or because of their dependence upon him. They may now defect to Meloni’s Fratelli d'Italia, the largest member of the government coalition. Berlusconi had been ill for a long time. It is plausible that both Meloni and Salvini have been preparing the ground for FI defections to their respective parties.
Yet, these defections may not be enough to stabilise the coalition. Some FI MPs may migrate towards the opposition centrists, even though the latter’s litigiousness may reduce their attraction power. Others may form splinter parties that would force Meloni into difficult negotiations with a galaxy of small actors to keep a shrunken majority alive.
In the short term, political developments are likely to fall somewhere between these two opposite scenarios. FI may continue to exist, as itself or in a different form, while suffering significant defections. Meloni may still have to negotiate with a less stable centre ally or allies.
But what is certain is that throughout the last three decades, Berlusconi’s personalistic conception of his political role has exerted a defining influence over Italian politics and parties. His departure leaves a gaping hole in Italy’s political centre, where many voters are located. The battle to win them has already started.