ROME (AP) — Just in time to celebrate his 86th birthday, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is making his return to Italy's parliament, winning a seat in the Senate nearly a decade after being banned from holding public office over a tax fraud conviction.
Berlusconi, who has made personal comebacks a hallmark of Italian politics for three decades, was re-elected to Italy’s upper house with more than 50% of the votes Sunday in the northern city of Monza, where he also owns a soccer team that was recently promoted to Italy’s top division.
While overall his party lost ground compared with the 2018 general elections, it fared better than expected and Berlusconi's victory was particularly heartfelt.
“Regaining a seat in the Senate was a sort of personal revenge for Berlusconi, after all the judicial problems he went through,” said Massimiliano Panarari, political analyst at Rome’s Mercatorum University.
In 2013, the Senate expelled Berlusconi because of a tax fraud conviction stemming from his media business, and he was banned from holding public office for six years. After he served a sentence of community service, a court ruled he could once again hold public office and he won a seat in the European Parliament in 2019.
His third and last premiership had ended abruptly in 2011, when financial markets lost confidence that the billionaire media magnate could manage Italy’s finances during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia center-right party — which pioneered populist politics in Italy in the 1990s — gained just over 8% in Sunday’s vote, which dominated by his ally Giorgia Meloni. She is now poised to lead the country’s first far-right government since World War II.
It was a better-than-expected result for Forza Italia, even though it still amounted to a significant loss of support compared with the 14% of the votes it nailed in 2018 elections. The party has grown weaker in recent years, hit by Berlusconi’s judicial woes and his recurring health problems, but it has remained relevant enough.
Beating expectations, Forza Italia finished right behind its other ally, the anti-immigrant League of Matteo Salvini, which won only about 9% of the vote, down from 17% in 2018.
Berlusconi has pledged to exercise a moderating influence over the other two more radical parties in the center-right coalition.
“In the competition with the League, Forza Italia did pretty well and, thanks to this, Berlusconi will be pivotal again in the new governing coalition. He can say he’s a winner in these elections,” Panarari said.
The media mogul, whose birthday is Thursday, did just that after the votes came in.
“Forza Italia proved decisive for the success of the center-right and the formation of the next government,” Berlusconi enthused in a tweet. “Once again I put myself at the service of Italy, of the country I love.”
Analysts noted that, despite some “grotesque” performances on TikTok, which Berlusconi used in the electoral campaign to reach young voters with anecdotes and jokes, the three-term premier succeeded in gaining a new space on Italy’s political stage.
His TikTok videos, where he often dressed in classic suits and ties, seemed to clash with the language and style of the teen audience, but often went viral.
“I've still got it,” he said in one viral video clip, after he successfully nailed a fly that had landed on his forehead during a television interview.
He raised eyebrows late in the campaign when he seemed to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, saying he was forced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in Donbas.
“The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace Zelensky’s government with decent people and then leave,” Berlusconi told his favorite late-night talk show host. Later he backtracked, saying his words had been “oversimplified.”
But Berlusconi has a long, friendly history with Putin: He has entertained the Russian leader at his Sardinian villa and even visited Crimea with Putin in 2014 after the Russian leader annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.
While Berlusconi has secured another political life for himself, the survival of his party long-term remains uncertain given it seems indissolubly linked to Berlusconi’s active presence on the scene.
“As long as Silvio Berlusconi lives, Forza Italia lives. But the party never had its autonomy,” said Sofia Ventura, a political science professor at the University of Bologna.
And yet Berlusconi wasn't the only winner in the household.
His 32-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, also took a seat in the lower house of parliament, after winning the vote in the Sicilian constituency of Marsala, despite never showing up in the southern island during the campaign.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper, Fascina said she used to go to Sicily with her father on vacation when she was a child.
Frances D'Emilio contributed.