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Italy’s Dark Knight Returns

FILE - Opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi of Italy arrives for a meeting of the European People's Party prior to an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.

His political career appeared to have been wrecked half a decade ago by sex and Mafia-linked corruption scandals, and in June he underwent open heart surgery, but to the amazement of Italy, 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi is forging an improbable comeback that’s enraging his foes and delighting his followers.

The latest way station on the unlikely political resurrection of Il Cavaliere (The Knight), as he is nicknamed, came Monday when his candidate for the governorship of Sicily trounced the nominee of Italy’s ruling center-left Democratic Party, or PD, and handsomely beat the candidate of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which until recently was the the odds-on favorite to win nationwide parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

The octogenarian television and property magnate campaigned actively in the Sicilian regional election, emphasizing his re-emergence as a force in the country’s politics, to the horror of his many enemies. They thought the four-time Italian prime minister had been vanquished for good in 2011 when his fourth government ended ignominiously amid allegations of bribery, sex with a minor and infamous so-called "bunga-bunga" parties (orgies) with prostitutes.

“Sicily, just as I asked, has chosen the path of real, serious, constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience,” Berlusconi said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

Berlusconi treated the Sicily campaign as a rehearsal for next May’s nationwide polls, promoting himself as an elder statesman with the skills and background to be able to shape a governing coalition to replace the center-left’s, which is mired in bitter feuding.

The leader of the anti-establishment M5S, Luigi Di Maio, declared Monday his party is still on track to be the senior partner in any coalition next year and declared the PD “politically dead.”

He framed also what will become a key part in the M5S’s election message next year, namely that it is the only political group capable of stopping Il Cavaliere. “We are the only alternative to Silvio Berlusconi,” said Di Maio at a news conference. “The PD is not a credible competitor,” he added.

5-Star Movement lawmaker Luigi Di Maio talks during a movement's protest outside the Italian Parliament moments after a new election law was approved by the Lower Chamber of Deputies, in Rome, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.
5-Star Movement lawmaker Luigi Di Maio talks during a movement's protest outside the Italian Parliament moments after a new election law was approved by the Lower Chamber of Deputies, in Rome, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.

For all of Di Maio's bravado, though, the result Monday was a major disappointment for the M5S, which campaigned for months in Sicily, eager to repeat a string of successes in municipal ballots in Rome and Turin. In 2012, a strong showing in Sicily for the anti-establishment movement presaged wider successes the following year across Italy, but as the populist mood has abated across Europe, M5S has found the going much tougher.

Opinion polls, and the Sicily win, suggest the center-right may well be on course to win next year’s national vote or at least be the dominant political force. "The political cartel that wins in Sicily is the same that would win in almost all the electoral colleges of the north, if we were to vote tomorrow," noted commentator Stefano Folli in the leftist La Repubblica newspaper.

A new complex electoral law will likely prevent any single political bloc securing an absolute majority of seats next May, but the likely resulting negotiations will play to Berlusconi’s strengths, argue his aides. The most likely result will be a coalition that has the PD, or elements of it, as the junior coalition partner.

The increasingly predicted electoral success next year for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and right-wing allies the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy doesn't guarantee Il Cavaliere will become prime minister.

In 2013, he was convicted of tax fraud and in 2015 a court in Naples found him guilty of bribing a senator to switch factions, precipitating the collapse of the government of Romano Prodi in 2008. His conviction carries a ban from holding public offense until 2019, although later this year, a European court will review his appeal seeking to overturn the ban.

The 81-year-old, as leader of Forza Italia, will be the force behind any center-right-led coalition government, say his aides.

The biggest danger for Berlusconi’s comeback may not rest with the voters, but with the courts.

His re-emergence is goading activist judges and prosecutors, who have long been his most bitter political foes, to review old cases against him that were never formally filed or to redouble their efforts on new cases.

In 2015, a court in the coastal town of Bari called him as a witness in the prosecution of seven defendants accused of procuring prostitutes for his bunga bunga sex parties. Milanese prosecutors are still investigating allegations that Berlusconi bribed key witnesses.