By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is galvanising his media empire behind his campaign to become Italy’s president this month, a move reviving dormant but unresolved concerns about conflict of interest.
The 85-year-old billionaire media tycoon, who served four terms as premier, is the formal candidate of Italy’s centre-right alliance and controls three national television channels, a daily newspaper and several magazines.
Many commentators say Berlusconi’s background – he was convicted of tax fraud and held “bunga bunga” sex parties – make him a far from ideal candidate, and on paper he lacks the broad parliamentary backing required.
Yet, shrugging off these concerns and recent chronic health problems, Berlusconi has launched a media campaign reminiscent of those that helped him win three national elections.
Voting among more than 1,000 parliamentarians and regional delegates begins on Jan. 24 and he is trying to win the backing of scores of unaffiliated deputies and senators who could potentially get him into the presidential palace.
Even though he does not need the votes of the Italian public, Berlusconi hopes that creating a groundswell of public opinion behind his candidacy could help convince lawmakers to back him.
“He wants to build momentum, it’s not strictly needed but he clearly thinks it can be useful,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at Britain’s Surrey University who has closely followed Berlusconi’s career.
For weeks, Berlusconi’s Mediaset television channels have been promoting his presidential ambitions, highlighting his qualities and achievements and ignoring blemishes such as an ongoing trial for allegedly bribing witnesses in a legal case, in which he denies the charges.
On Thursday, his family-owned newspaper Il Giornale ran a full-page advertisement entitled “Who is Silvio Berlusconi … who better than him?”
It featured a decades-old photo of the former premier and a list of 22 of his characteristics and supposed accomplishments.
The qualities include being “a good and generous person,” “a friend of everyone, enemy of no one,” and “a self-made man, an example for all Italians.”
One of his listed achievements is “ending the Cold War”. Others, though factually inaccurate, include “founding commercial television in Europe” and being president of “the club that has won most in the history of world football”.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST DEBATE
Since entering politics in 1994, Berlusconi has been accused of using his media to promote his political fortunes and using his political power to defend his media interests.
However, when it was in power, the centre-left did not change the law to address the problem, possibly fearful of a fierce reaction from Berlusconi’s business empire.
Modest legislation on conflict of interest was approved by Berlusconi himself in 2004. Though this was widely deemed inadequate, it has never been toughened.
“Everyone thought Berlusconi was out of the picture after 2011 and so the conflict of interest debate just faded away,” said pollster and political analyst Lorenzo Pregliasco.
“That is quite typical of the way Italian politics works, only considering an issue when there is an immediate visible emergency.”
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)