Forza Italia: a difficult legacy

Forza Italia is a right-wing party founded by Silvio Berlusconi, the late former prime minister and ‘eternal party president.’ As head of the Italian government, he maintained cordial relations with Vladimir Putin and declared the annexation of Crimea legal.

Silvio Berlusconi came to politics from business, having earned 6.8 billion euros. Construction came first, then media and football. Berlusconi’s media projects, including TV channels in France and Germany, were all part of Fininvest Holding Company, and by the early 90s, Fininvest became the second-biggest media group in Europe.

Western media use the term “Berlusconism” as a mix of conservatism, populism, and economic non-interference.

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Berlusconi’s entire political career, and he has been prime minister three times in 14 years, has been accompanied by numerous scandals and legal battles. He was accused repeatedly of income concealment and bribery, connections with the mafia, illegal campaign financing, etc. During his lifetime, more than 20 cases were brought against him on various charges, including abuse of power and the use of underage sex workers.

The “Ruby” case (the Prime Minister was accused of using the services of underage prostitutes and of being involved in the release from the police of one of them, Karima el Maroug, nicknamed “Ruby the Heartbreaker”) and the “bunga-bunga” case (Berlusconi was accused of arranging orgies at his villa San Martino in Arcora) received the most media attention.

But what has Silvio Berlusconi’s life got to do with the party? Well, it has everything to do with the party. The party’s rules, laid down by the ‘Knight’ Silvio, continue to govern it today.

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The press often refers to Berlusconi as “Putin’s friend” because of his long-standing friendship with the Russian leader. The two leaders described their friendship as close. Silvio and Russian President Vladimir exchanged gifts like a case of vodka and bottles of wine, and wrote nice letters. Following Berlusconi’s resignation, they continued to meet each other. In September 2015, Berlusconi paid a visit to Russian-occupied Crimea, where he met with Putin.

After the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine began and the West imposed sanctions against Russia, Berlusconi justified the aggressor’s actions by noting that Moscow “cannot but defend Ukrainian citizens of Russian origin.”

However, in September 2022, a few days before parliamentary elections, the late Berlusconi, speaking on Rai TV, said that “aggression against Ukraine is unjustified and unacceptable”. At the same time, he placed part of the blame for what is happening on NATO, and suggested that Europe “raise the issue of a peaceful solution, encouraging Ukrainians to accept Putin’s demands.”

In the same interview, Berlusconi said Russia’s original plan was to seize Kyiv within a week, replace democratically elected Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky with a government of decent people, and withdraw troops after another week.

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During the last year of his life, a seriously ill Berlusconi in his public statements inclined Ukraine to negotiate with the aggressor, and blamed Zelensky(!) for the Russian invasion.

Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, who took over the party after Berlusconi’s death, holds different views on Russia’s war against the Ukrainian people. In May, he said that he supported Kyiv’s proposals for a peace settlement and that negotiations were impossible if Ukraine’s position was ignored.

On 13 May 2024, the Forza Italia (member of the EPP) election campaign was launched. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also paid a visit to Rome, specifically to provide support to the electoral campaign of the EPP. After she arrived in Rome, the Commission president met with Tajani, but she did not go to the Forza Italia campaign event or meet Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Ursula von der Leyen did make a video message to emphasise the importance of Forza Italia and Tajani’s leadership for the future. “Under Antonio Tajani’s leadership, Forza Italia remains Italy’s anchor in Europe.” And the EPP will “lead the fight for the defence of democracy”.

Tajani, leader of Forza Italia and Council Vice President, underlined that “we are not enemies of Russia, we know that it is a great country and that one day it will have to return to its role in Europe.”

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Every time a new corruption scandal has erupted in Italy in recent decades, one can be sure that a Forza Italia representative was involved, as the latest Calabrian investigation has shown. Within the past year, party members have been jailed in Lombardy, Calabria, Campania, Piedmont, and Sicily.

While the government is negotiating with Forza Italia, Forza Italia has signalled to the government to remind them who they are talking to. Domenico Tallini, president of Forza Italia of Calabria, was arrested for his involvement in a mafia association. Along with him, 19 others were detained for their involvement in a significant money laundering scheme perpetrated by the Ndrangheta clan through fictitious pharmaceutical corporations.

In Palermo, Sicily, a candidate for the city council of Forza Italia has been detained on suspicion of ties to the mafia. He promised help to a mafia construction company close to Toto Riina. His associate Manlio Porretto is also in handcuffs.

The political model of Berlusconism is outdated, and it remains to be seen whether Tajani possesses the strength and courage to revitalise the party he has inherited.

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