Days before Italy’s parliament was due to pause for the Christmas break, hard-right leader Matteo Salvini intensified efforts to wrestle back the political tides in his favour.
His mission is to elect Silvio Berlusconi – the three-time former prime minister who is infamous for his court cases and “bunga bunga” sex parties – as Italian President early next year.
For members of Italy’s right, electing the 85-year-old could break what they see as a left-wing stranglehold over the presidential position.
For Berlusconi, it would be the ultimate trophy in a stellar career, in which he has already become a billionaire entrepreneur and Italy’s longest-serving prime minister.
With that in mind, Salvini is trying to convince Mario Draghi, the current prime minister and presidential favourite, not to stand for the role.
“Draghi should remain prime minister,” Salvini told journalists last Friday during a pause in his ongoing trial for allegedly preventing a migrant boat from docking in 2019.
“I’m forcing myself to sustain a coalition with the Democratic Party, and he is about to leave?”
Draghi, the former European Central Bank (ECB) president who was called on to form a technical government earlier this year, leads a coalition that features both the Eurosceptic League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Both parties risk being marginalised by overwhelming and widespread support for Draghi’s reformist plans to spend almost €200b (£168bn) of EU Covid recovery funds on sweeping administrative, economic, infrastructural and judicial reforms.
Even so, Italy’s right-wing bloc – which includes Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy alongside the League and Forza Italia – commands parliament with 450 votes.
Its members see the presidential election, to take place in January, as a rare chance to elect a sympathetic figure who could strengthen their hand.
“For the first time ever, we could have a president of the centre-right that would represent the majority of Italians,” says Federico Mollicone, a senior MP for Brothers of Italy.
Berlusconi’s colourful record would make him an unconventional candidate.
Convicted of tax fraud in 2012, he is now on trial for criminal charges related to his “bunga bunga” parties – which he denies.
Moreover, he has made only rare public appearances since receiving open heart surgery in 2016.
Many claim his faltering health makes him unsuitable for the seven-year presidential role.
Supporters have underplayed such concerns. For Mollicone, Berlusconi is a “patriot” who, while prime minister, doggedly “defended the interests of the nation” against damaging EU-led reforms.
“Berlusconi made his mark on political history [by] putting Bush and Putin on the same table,” says Licia Ronzulli, a Forza Italia senator.
Italian presidents have a largely ceremonial function, but intervene in times of political crisis. They are selected by roughly 1,000 national and regional politicians in a secret ballot.
In a “summit” with Salvini and Meloni due to take place in his lavish Villa Grande home in Rome yesterday, the Forza Italia leader was set to consolidate his position as favourite of the right.
“The election is absolutely in the hands of the right because the left doesn’t have a preferred candidate”, says Lorenzo Castellani, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS university.
However, the bloc is short of the required 505 votes so will need to rely on outside support to realise its plans.
Italian papers have sizzled with speculation about whether Draghi will stand for the role.
“If Draghi declares his interest many will find it difficult to turn him down,” says Castellani.
Draghi, who is unlikely to stand in the general election scheduled for little over a year’s time, may be reluctant to leave the government at a critical point in his spending plans. That said, he may be tempted to try and steer the government during seven years as president.
“I really think he wants the role,” Castellani says of Draghi.
A swathe of other candidates – including justice minister Marta Cartabia, who would be Italy’s first female president – could rise to the surface in backroom deals, hints Alessio Vernetti, an analyst for YouTrend.
“This is unpredictable Italian politics,” Vernetti concludes. “Anything could happen.”