Aging and disgraced, the former Italian PM and one-time ship’s crooner resorts to joke phone invitations to ‘bunga bunga’ parties in his bid to become Italy's next president.

The one thing missing from the list of 22 personality traits and accomplishments flaunted in a full-page newspaper advert entitled “Who is Silvio Berlusconi?” was the former Italian prime minister’s talent for singing. But the one-time cruise ship crooner, one of Italy’s most controversial leaders, well known for his myriad legal woes, is hoping his pleasant voice will seduce dozens of parliamentarians into backing his bid to become Italy’s next president.

The secret ballot begins on 24 January and Berlusconi, 85, has broken from tradition by shamelessly campaigning for the job, a largely ceremonial role with powers to resolve political crises, even without officially throwing his hat into the ring. His charm offensive, which includes telephone canvassing of unaffiliated parliamentarians whose votes could secure his victory and jokingly inviting them to his “bunga bunga party”’, is stoking tensions in Italy’s ruling coalition, blocking meaningful debate on an impartial candidate who all parties can agree on – and igniting protests among Italians who find the prospect of the scandal-plagued Berlusconi becoming head of state abominable.

For the past week, Vittorio Sgarbi, an MP, art critic and a culture undersecretary in Berlusconi’s second of four governments, has been orchestrating “calls with Berlusconi” to establish whether the billionaire Forza Italia leader can muster enough votes to win. “He told me he had 100 votes more [needed from unaffiliated parliamentarians] and I said, ‘OK, let’s try and give the votes a face’, and so we started phoning people,” said Sgarbi. “These are people without a party to call home, and so when you get a call from Berlusconi you feel important. We’ve made 50 calls so far, and 15 seemed ready to vote for him. He’s the one doing the talking, not me, and he has a voice like Frank Sinatra. For me, his voice alone can bring in at least another 20 votes.”

Just over 1,000 “grand electors” – MPs, senators and a smaller number of regional delegates – will cast their ballots in a complex process that is likely to go through several rounds before a successor to Sergio Mattarella, who steps down on 3 February, is elected. The majority required to win diminishes on each round. If Berlusconi officially expresses his candidature in the coming days and can prove he has the extra numbers then his rightwing allies, the League and Brothers of Italy, have promised their parties’ backing. If that promise prevails and all parliamentarians from the rightwing bloc support Berlusconi, then he would need about 80 more votes from the unaffiliated pool to secure the 505 required for victory in the fourth round.

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