by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, July 5 (Xinhua) -- Older and in poor health, Italy's controversial Berlusconi is gearing up for one more political run, according to recent local media reports. Will Berlusconi really be able to come back for political battles, analysts believe nothing is impossible.
Now 80 years old, Berlusconi was the dominant figure in Italian politics between 1994 and 2011, the year he stepped down amid legal woes and fears the country could be forced to default on its debt payments. During that 17-year-period, Berlusconi headed four separate governments and he made a habit making unlikely comebacks.
The coming months will tell whether the billionaire media mogul can do it one more time.
Italy is set to hold a round of national elections, either late this year or in the first half of 2018. Heading into the election, the political landscape is fractured: the center-left Democratic Party (PD) has split into two factions, while the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) was dealt a setback when it under-performed in recent local and regional elections. But those local and regional votes were kind to Berlusconi's Forza Italia and other center-right parties.
To be sure, the odds are still long that Berlusconi will end up wearing the prime minister's sash one last time. He would have to win an appeal to the European Court of Justice that convictions for false accounting, tax fraud, and bribery that bar him from political office should be overturned. The appeal is scheduled to be heard in November.
Additionally, Berlusconi had open heart surgery last year, something that could prevent him from taking part in a rigorous full-time political campaign.
"Nothing is impossible, but I see it much more likely that Berlusconi could make it possible for someone like Matteo Renzi to become prime minister," Arianna Montanari, a political scientist with Rome's La Sapienza University, told Xinhua. She was referring to the former center-left prime minister, barely half Berlusconi's age, who is mounting his own political comeback.
"I see Berlusconi setting himself up as a new grand old man of politics, and not someone with a formal role in the next government," Montanari said.
Federico Castorina, president of Cultura Democratica, a think tank, agreed: "It is looking like Berlusconi will be more of a king maker than the king," Castorina said in an interview. "But that is an important role."
Renato Brunetta, the leader of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in the lower house of parliament, said in public remarks that Berlusconi is taking the challenge of the upcoming elections seriously. Brunetta said Berlusconi leaves his home in Milan at least a couple of days per week to travel to Rome to discuss political strategy with allies.
"Berlusconi is looking at this as the last big challenge of his political career," Brunetta said. "He has suffered many injustices and he deserves one last shot and nobody can deny him that."
In the latest polls, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party gains support of around 15 percent of the electorate, around half that of PD and M5S and even with the separatist Northern League, a Forza Italia ally. The polls were taken before the local elections, where Berlusconi's allies exceeded expectations. Additionally, pollsters say Berlusconi's proposal of a 20-percent flat tax for both individual income and corporate profits is resonating with a public that feels overtaxed.
If support levels hold more or less steady, it means no single party will garner 40 percent of the vote needed to form a government on its own. In that context, and with M5S opposed to forming a coalition, it appears some kind of an agreement between PD and Berlusconi and his allies will be increasingly likely.