Media mogul and former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a political rally in Rome, Italy, on Wednesday.
BERLIN — Asked in September if she feared a comeback by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany appeared at pains to hold back a smile as the room erupted in laughter.
“I am, as you know, a democratic politician and respect the outcome of elections in every country,” she told reporters in Berlin.
Five months later, the possibility that Berlusconi could return to play a role in the next Italian government is no longer a laughing matter for Merkel’s government. As Italy’s elections approach Sunday, German officials have begun, in not-so-subtle ways, to signal to Italians not to vote for him.
“Silvio Berlusconi may be an effective campaign strategist,” Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso quoted German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as saying in an interview last week. “But my advice to the Italians is not to make the same mistake again by voting for him.”
A spokesman for the Finance Ministry later disavowed the comment. But any German warning runs the danger of creating the opposite effect, by elevating Berlusconi’s stature as he runs a populist campaign aimed at appealing to Italians weary of the austerity measures that Merkel has pushed as the prescription for the euro crisis.
The bad blood runs both ways. Signs of the dislike between Merkel and Berlusconi have swirled for years. Last fall, media reports surfaced that the former Italian leader had made unflattering remarks about Merkel’s appearance in telephone calls wiretapped by investigators. He denies having said them.
Nonetheless, attacking Merkel is part of Berlusconi’s campaign. Tuesday, he told Italian radio that he was the victim of a “half coup” when he resigned in November 2011, blaming Merkel for rattling markets by ordering German banks to sell their Italian bonds.
He has accused Germany of strangling European growth by trying to impose its economic views across Europe, which he attributed to Merkel’s upbringing in Communist East Germany.
“That’s like imposing on all European citizens that men should wear size 42 shoes and women size 40,” he told a cheering crowd of business leaders in northern Italy on Monday.
Berlusconi has also been critical of the fiscal compact between European countries, which calls on nations to balance their budgets, as an example of the steely discipline that earned Merkel the nickname of her 19th-century predecessor Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor.
German investors, meanwhile, blame Berlusconi and his center-right People of Freedom party for dragging Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, into the crisis.
They worry that any government involving the former prime minister could reverse changes set by Mario Monti, the economist who replaced Berlusconi.
“Italy needs politicians in leadership that can be associated with the future,” Ruprecht Polenz, a leading member of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, said in the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “Mr. Berlusconi certainly does not stand for that.”
Although the chancellor is unlikely to comment on the outcome of the Italian election, members of her cabinet and party made clear her government’s position in comments published Tuesday.
Merkel’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that “whoever forms the new government, we think it is important that the pro-European course and the necessary reforms be continued.”
Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman, underlined in comments to reporters later Tuesday that the foreign minister’s view was shared by the whole government in Berlin.
The likelihood of Berlusconi’s getting into office is regarded as slim in Italy, although most recent polls show his coalition narrowing the gap between itself and the center-left coalition to single digits.
But the fears of a Berlusconi revival extend even beyond Berlin.
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