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Berlusconi in a resurgent mood ahead of Italian elections

Silvio Berlusconi is second in opinion polls in Italy, despite a tax-fraud conviction and sex charges trial. But can he fix the country's failing finances?

Silvio Berlusconi is second in opinion polls in Italy, despite a tax-fraud conviction and sex charges trial. REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi
Silvio Berlusconi is second in opinion polls in Italy, despite a tax-fraud conviction and sex charges trial. REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi

They say you can't keep a good man down and, in Italy, it seems you can't keep an allegedly bad one down either.

Silvio Berlusconi has a recipe for redemption in Italy, where recessions are recurrent and corruption pervasive: smile, deny and promise tax cuts.

The concoction has proved potent with repetition on Italian television, a medium the billionaire revolutionised before entering politics 20 years ago; in one showdown with a long-time adversary he drew double the number of viewers of the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong's initial doping admission.

The twice-divorced grandfather, 76, has spun ratings into support as he appeals a tax-fraud conviction and stands trial on sex charges. Fourteen months after his third stint as premier came to an abrupt end as his missteps worsened Europe's debt crisis, Mr Berlusconi is second in opinion polls before the Italian general elections on February 24 and 25.

"He is unbreakable," says Pier Ferdinando Casini, a former chamber of deputies speaker and ally of Mr Berlusconi and current rival.

"Berlusconi is a superb salesman. He is a man without peer in the election campaign. You have to acknowledge his skill."

Revelations of shoddy accounting at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena may give him a further boost. Mr Berlusconi has gone on the attack against the polls front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani, whose Democratic Party controls the bank's largest shareholder.

Mr Berlusconi's resurgence highlights risks to European policymakers' expressions of confidence that the worst of the market turmoil in the euro zone has passed. He was reprimanded by the European Central Bank president at the time Jean-Claude Trichet in August 2011 for failing to take necessary actions to fix Italy's finances - tax increases and budget cuts since implemented by Mario Monti, Mr Berlusconi's unelected successor.

Ten-year borrowing costs in Italy, Europe's second-biggest debtor after Greece and its fourth-largest economy, have fallen more than 3 percentage points from the final days of Mr Berlusconi's government in November 2011 to about 4.2 per cent.

He says he will roll back Mr Monti's austerity and demand allies in the European Union, starting with Germany, to do more to promote stimulus.

"The Italians are surely not daft enough to vote him back into office," says Michael Fuchs, a deputy parliamentary leader of the German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

"The type of policy he represents helped get us into this mess in the first place."

Even with his political revival, Mr Berlusconi may be limited to a spoiler's role, according to Maurizio Pessato, the head of the pollster SWG Institute.

"There's room to grow, but certainly not enough to entertain thoughts of victory," he says.

"He will make more gains because Italy's centre-right electorate is fairly broad. But the limits are clear."

Mr Berlusconi is using his TV exposure, which according La Stampa totalled 63 hours from December 24 to January 14, to jab at his competitors. Mr Monti is a political opportunist who failed to protect taxpayers from potential losses when he approved a bailout for the Monte Paschi bank last year, Mr Berlusconi has said. Mr Bersani, a former communist, has not turned his back on the ideology of his youth, Mr Berlusconi has said.

He was equally forthright about himself. "I'm playful, I'm optimistic, I'm upbeat. I say the things that have to be said but I know how to say them with humour and irony," Mr Berlusconi said in an interview on the Santoro TV show run by a station owned by his company Mediaset.

His push against austerity marks a contradiction as it counters the support he gave to Mr Monti's tax increases from November 2011 to December. Mr Berlusconi has refused to acknowledge any incoherence, laying the blame for Italy's current recession - its fourth since 2001 - on Mr Monti.

"The problem is we live in a political system that tolerates a high degree of deceit," says Giovanni Orsina, a professor at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.

"A shameless lie by [Mr] Berlusconi is less worrisome. He is not disguising himself as a serious person, while the others are."

Voters are accustomed to denials from Mr Berlusconi and his peers given the routine, often inconclusive, conflict between parliament and the courts. More than 100 of 949 national politicians have been targeted by investigations, indicted or convicted of crimes, the newspaper La Stampa reported in November. Convictions are not considered definite until they are confirmed by the country's highest court. Mr Berlusconi is appealing an October tax-fraud conviction that carries a four-year prison sentence. He is standing trial in Milan on sex charges, then using the power of his office to cover his tracks. He denies the charges.

While he has adopted "A Just Italy" as his campaign slogan, the trials win Mr Berlusconi sympathy, even among former supporters.

"He didn't accomplish anything, and this is beyond discussion," Massimo Zuccherini, an unemployed former Berlusconi voter in Abruzzo, says of the billionaire's record.

"But you also have to say that [Mr] Berlusconi was subjected to judicial persecution." Mr Berlusconi has accused prosecutors of trying to destroy him politically. By his own reckoning two years ago, he had faced 105 probes and trials, 2,500 court hearings and spent more than €300 million (Dh1.45 billion) in legal fees since entering politics in 1994.

In civil court, his Fininvest holding company was ordered to pay €540m to a business rival for bribing a judge in a takeover battle dating back to 1991. Mr Berlusconi has said he had just one trial before entering politics at the age of 57.

His coalition, which has appealed to entrepreneurs and conservative Italians, had 28 per cent support in an EMG poll conducted on January 24 and 25 and released last week.

That was unchanged from the previous week, while Mr Bersani's centre-left group slipped 0.3 percentage points to 36.8 per cent, and Mr Monti's forces fell 0.7 percentage points to 14.5 per cent in the poll. Beppe Grillo's euro-sceptic movement had 13.5 per cent support, according to EMG.

Mr Berlusconi jump-started his campaign in December when criticism from his party's general secretary, Angelino Alfano, presaged a bid to topple the government. Mr Berlusconi then called for an end to its biggest austerity measure: a tax on primary residences.

As prime minister in late 2011, he had committed Italy to a structural balanced budget in two years. His party voted to pass the property tax.

Mr Berlusconi, questioned by Michele Santoro, a journalist he had fired from state-owned TV in 2002, blamed communists. Those promoting "the most inhuman and criminal ideology in the history of man" held sway over Mr Monti, he said.

The rebound in support for the former premier "has without doubt happened and the Santoroshow and other recent public appearances have helped," says Renato Mannheimer, the head of polling company Ispo.

"We'll have to see if it lasts."

That 150-minute encounter drew almost 9 million viewers, or about 15 per cent of Italy's population. That compares with the 3.2 million in live US viewership Oprah Winfrey garnered for her exclusive with Armstrong.

While Mr Berlusconi denies the sex charges against him, he will engage even adversarial reporters about his love life and billionaire lifestyle, offering glimpses into the prime ministerial mansion, his Sardinian estate and the owner's box at his AC Milan football club.

The "beautiful girls" brought two at a time by Gianpaolo Tarantini, arrested in 2009 and accused of procuring prostitutes for the billionaire, revived an otherwise bored Mr Berlusconi at routine political dinners, the ex-premier said last month on the television broadcaster La7. Mr Berlusconi says he gave Karima El Mahroug, the woman at the centre of his sex trial, €57,000 to help her set up a business and avoid prostituting herself.

Ms El Mahroug has denied having sex with the former premier, while acknowledging he did give her money.

Mr Berlusconi is still polling 20 percentage points below the 47 per cent of the votes his coalition got when it won the 2008 election.

That gap can not be attributed to a deficit with women, Mr Mannheimer says, even after the sex scandals and Mr Berlusconi's most recent divorce.

Mr Berlusconi campaigned for Letizia Moratti as the mayor of Milan, Italy's business capital. And he had at least five women in his cabinets. To his female allies, that makes his public womanising less of a concern.

"He has a particular sensibility and particular respect for women," said Mariastella Gelmini, the education minister in Mr Berlusconi's last government.

"When there's an important decision to make, [Mr] Berlusconi trusts feminine intuition more than male reasoning."

Mr Berlusconi, a cruise-ship musician in his youth, built a fortune as a property developer before patching together the first private television networks to span the entire country. He took on the stodgy programming of the state-run broadcaster RAI by filling his networks with dubbed US dramas such as Dallas and Dynasty and original game shows, many of which featured dozens of smiling, scantily-clad women.

The programming focused on a conception of the "good life", an outlook that Mr Berlusconi's political appeals would later evoke, according to Professor Alexander Stille of Columbia Journalism School. "[Mr] Berlusconi helped shape contemporary Italian culture through private television," says Mr Stille

"Then he shaped the electorate that then elected him."

For Mr Berlusconi, the sly old fox of Italian politics, la dolce vita is never far away.

* with Bloomberg News