After Silvio Berlusconi’s death last June, senior figures in his Forza Italia party openly speculated that the group would not be able to survive without its charismatic leader at the helm.
Nine months on and the party, founded in 1994 when Berlusconi first stood for election, has actually pushed higher in the polls and is helping to moderate the image of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s nationalist government.
Much has changed since the death of Berlusconi, who for three decades embodied Forza Italia, making it hard to imagine that it could outlive its old master.
Its new leader, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, has brought a low-key management style and firmly distanced the group from its previous pro-Moscow stance dictated by Berlusconi’s close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tajani’s more measured leadership has resonated with centrist voters who appreciate his pro-European politics, pollsters say, helping to keep the party afloat and defying his own concerns over its future viability.
“When (Berlusconi) left us I was in Washington, it was three o’clock in the morning. I got a message from a friend saying ‘He flew to heaven’. The world collapsed around me, I feared it was all over,” Tajani told a party congress last month.
While Berlusconi and Meloni had sometimes fraught relations, with the Forza Italia founder calling her “over-bearing, arrogant and offensive” after her 2022 election victory, ties between the prime minister and Tajani are much smoother.
This has made him her most reliable political ally — a sharp contrast to Matteo Salvini, head of the other main coalition party, the far-right League, who has grown increasingly volatile ahead of June European elections.
The League, Forza Italia and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party have all forged different alliances within the European parliament, which puts them at odds ahead of the June vote.
While Salvini has maintained his usual anti-EU rhetoric, Meloni has retreated from her previous criticism of Brussels and has sought more constructive ties with the predominant centre-right bloc (EPP), which includes Forza Italia. The distribution of top jobs at the European institutions will largely depend on the result of the June vote, and a healthy score for Tajani should help Meloni push for an influential EU role for one of her loyalists.
“Having a long-term member of the EPP as an ally may help us after the elections,” said Federico Mollicone, a senior Brothers of Italy lawmaker.
Brothers of Italy has strengthened its position as the country’s most popular party ahead of the June ballot, and is polling at 27.5%. According to a survey published last week in Corriere della Sera newspaper Forza Italia, which was polling around 7% when Berlusconi was still alive, is now seen at 8.7%, slightly ahead of the League.
Tajani, who said his aim was to get 10% of the vote in June, had a 36% personal approval rating, higher than any other Italian party leader bar Meloni, the same poll showed. A one-time journalist, Tajani was a co-founder of Forza Italia, but spent most of his political career in Brussels, first as an EU lawmaker, then serving in the Commission before becoming president of the European parliament in 2017.
Being away from Italy, he managed to distance himself from Berlusconi’s many scandals, such as raunchy parties, and avoid the lacerating, hurly burly of domestic politics.
Since taking charge of the party, he has looked to delegate power, something Berlusconi never succeeded in doing, and allowed party members to pick four deputy leaders.
“There is no longer the great father who solves everything. Everyone has taken on their responsibility, seeking party unity above personal differences,” Forza Italia lawmaker Giorgio Mule told Reuters.
Berlusconi’s family, heirs to his business empire that includes Italy’s top commercial broadcaster MediaForEurope, has also played a role in keeping the party alive and continues to pour money into the group whose debt amounted to around €100mn ($107.75mn) in 2022, its budget shows.
“Forza Italia remains a corporation-party, and Berlusconi’s family money is contributing to ensure continuity,” said Emanuele Massetti, a politics professor at the University of Trento.
Constant speculation that one of his children might enter politics has so far come to nothing. But while Tajani has managed to keep Forza Italia alive, he is unlikely to restore it to its old glory of being Italy’s leading right-wing force.
“The era of Forza Italia dominance is over. Times have changed and the party looks unlikely to return to its past vote percentages,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a political communications expert from the Modena and Reggio Emilia University.