ALTHOUGH he has vowed to fight on, Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud is fuelling speculation his eldest daughter Marina, head of his £4.25 billion business empire, could take his place as leader of the centre-right in Italy.
Loyalists in his People of Freedom (PDL) party insist Mr Berlusconi remains firmly in charge and will continue his 20-year leadership of the centre-right.
But the 76-year-old media mogul’s failure to overturn his conviction last week means he faces a year under house arrest or on community service, which would stretch even his formidable campaigning skills.
He is also likely to be ejected from the Senate in the autumn and be unable to stand as an electoral candidate.
This has boosted the idea that Marina, who turns 47 on Saturday, could become at least the figurehead for the PDL, despite her stated reluctance to enter politics.
Under this scenario, Mr Berlusconi would continue to exercise major influence as the party’s founding father, but his daughter would play the more public and campaigning role. Such speculation is encouraged by the fact that the PDL exists only because of Mr Berlusconi and is totally dependent on his wealth and leadership.
“I’d rather have Berlusconi stay on for another round. That said, I am absolutely fine with Marina,” Daniela Santanche, one of the former premier’s staunchest supporters, told a TV show.
A front-page article last weekend in the family’s newspaper, il Giornale, said: “Every day they ask her [Marina] to enter politics. She says no. Perhaps it’s because she knows how to choose the right moment.”
Listed among the world’s most powerful women by US business magazine Forbes, Marina Berlusconi sits at the helm of Fininvest, a holding company that controls broadcaster Mediaset, publishing house Mondadori and football club AC Milan. It also has a big stake in asset manager Mediolanum.
She is described by people who work with her as tough and demanding; Fedele Confalonieri, a lifelong friend of her father and chairman of Mediaset, has likened her tough business drive to a “pneumatic drill”.
However, some senior PDL figures, including chamber of deputies floor leader Renato Brunetta, are said to oppose the idea of a dynasty in Italian politics.
Mr Berlusconi catapulted his daughter into corporate life in her early twenties. “Silvio put her down to work when she was barely more than a child,” Vittorio Giovanelli, former director of his Retequattro TV network, wrote in a 2003 book, saying her father started taking her to business meetings in 1985. “She listened and took notes for hours, she would never stop.”
A mother of two married to a former La Scala ballet dancer, Marina became Fininvest deputy chairwoman in 1996 and landed the top job in 2005. During her tenure, Mediaset and Mondadori have run into hard times. Both are struggling to keep on top of the technological changes threatening the media industry, compounding the damage done by recession, which has weakened the advertising market.
Despite repeatedly distancing herself from the idea, Marina’s name has cropped up regularly as a potential leader since her father was unceremoniously bundled from power in November 2011, as Italy faced a possible Greek-style debt crisis.
“I never even thought of entering politics; it’s not my role,” she said in a rare interview in 2011. Just over a month before her father’s conviction, Fininvest said talk of her stepping into her father’s shoes was “groundless”.
Pollsters say that while she has no political experience, she would be well received by her father’s supporters, and could exploit her image as a successful businesswoman, as he did when he entered politics in 1994.
But her father’s extraordinary political skills would be a tough act to follow.
“It remains to be seen whether she is capable of connecting with people like her father is,” Renato Mannheimer, of the ISPO polling institute, said.