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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Italy’s Berlusconi seduces voters in final bid for power

He's 81, a convicted criminal and his last government ended with Italy on the brink of bankruptcy, but Silvio Berlusconi is making a comeback bid in 2018

The return of Berlusconi? A conviction for tax fraud means he can't run for office himself, but former premier Silvio Berlusconi could emerge as the kingmaker in the Italian general election on March 4. Ettore Ferrari/ANSA via AP
The return of Berlusconi? A conviction for tax fraud means he can't run for office himself, but former premier Silvio Berlusconi could emerge as the kingmaker in the Italian general election on March 4. Ettore Ferrari/ANSA via AP

He was the “Trump before Trump”, an anti-establishment business mogul whose era at the helm of Italian politics was plagued by sex scandals and legal troubles.

But having been cast out into the political wilderness in 2011, Silvio Berlusconi — the man his supporters call Il Cavaliere (the knight) — is back to fight another day. And his message, which is being pumped across the many Italian TV stations he controls ahead of elections on March 4, is proving attractive to a nation sick of slow economic growth, high taxes and persistent unemployment.

“Berlusconi is making a comeback, and he will help us seize the glory of the past,” Michele Baronio, a 46-year-old supporter from Lake Garda, told The National. “He has a lot of experience, and I think that’s exactly what we need.”

This combination of conservatism and nostalgia pervades the air in Italy, after years of politicians pushing reform agendas failed to deliver perceptible improvements in people’s lives.

Ever quick to adapt, Mr Berlusconi has picked up on the public mood and worked it to his advantage.

The 81-year-old billionaire media tycoon emerged more than two decades ago as an outsider prepared to shake up the system, in a manner not dissimilar to US president Donald Trump. But more recently, he has rebranded himself as an experienced political hand to guide Italy through tough times and to counter the rise of the populist 5-Star Movement.

“He is reprofiling himself as the expert statesman coming to the rescue of a country in dire need,” said Adriano Bosoni, senior Europe analyst for global intelligence firm Stratfor. “On his party’s website, he paints Italy in a very bad light. It says the economy is weaker than it was under him, there is more unemployment, taxes are higher… and the clear message is, ‘I am Italy’s saviour, because I’m the man with the most experience in government, I’m the man with the track record’.”

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Indeed, Mr Berlusconi’s second term as prime minister, between 2001 and 2006, is the longest that any Italian leader has served since the Second World War. It is this experience and longevity that voters like Mr Baronio, and millions of others, are finding so appealing.

According to the polls, the centre-right coalition around Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia ("Come on, Italy!") party is far outstripping both a centre-left coalition led by the ruling Democratic Party, and the 5-Star Movement.

A recent survey by Tecne suggests the ex-premier’s coalition has the support of 39.2 per cent of voters, compared with 25 per cent for the centre-left group.

While a hung parliament remains the most likely outcome, Mr Berlusconi’s group looks “very close” to being able to obtain a parliamentary majority, said Tecne chairman Carlo Buttaroni.

By itself, Forza Italia is polling at around 15 to 18 per cent. The four-time prime minister is currently appealing against a ban on his standing for office again, following a 2013 conviction for tax fraud. But either way, he is viewed as a potential kingmaker who could end up pulling the strings of power after March 4.

A series of other scandals have also undermined Mr Berlusconi’s political career. Under pressure from his parliamentary and international allies, he was forced to quit as prime minister in November 2011 as Italy’s borrowing costs soared to unsustainable levels.

He left office amid revelations about erotic “Bunga Bunga” parties at his private villa. There were also accusations that he had paid for sex with an underage prostitute.

“Yes, mistakes were made in the past,” admitted Francesca Mombelli, a Forza Italia representative and activist.

“But I think Berlusconi has paid his dues. Now we’re very hopeful for the future. We strongly believe in Berlusconi. He’s very skilled, he knows the job very well. I think he is the right person to lead our party.”

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Central to Mr Berlusconi’s campaign is a promise to introduce a “flat tax” — or single uniform rate — which, he argues, will help to stimulate economic growth.

Explaining the plan in a radio interview last week, Mr Berlusconi said: “Fewer taxes on families, fewer taxes on companies, fewer taxes on labour, means more consumption by households, more production by businesses, more employment, and more money in the state’s coffers to help citizens.”

It is a message that is going down well in Italy, a country with one of the highest tax burdens in the developed world.

But critics have pointed out that Mr Berlusconi included the idea in his programme when he first ran, no less than 24 years ago, without ever making good on his promise.

“Berlusconi’s record while in power is not the most favourable in terms of tax reduction. It is actually, if anything, the opposite,” said Filippo Taddei, professor at SAIS-Europe Johns Hopkins University and former economic adviser to the Democratic Party.

“The flat tax will never be introduced — it is just campaign talk. On March 5, it will be forgotten,” he continued. “It won’t be affordable unless we have some massive reduction in government spending — and that is extremely hard politically.”

Younger people, on the whole, seem to be the most cynical about Mr Berlusconi. Alessandro Mattiolo, a young lawyer in Rome, dismissed Mr Berlusconi’s promises as “propaganda calls” but conceded, “I don’t believe him, but a lot of people do.”

Forza Italia's website features Mr Berlusconi’s name against the words: “Onestà, esperienza, saggezza” (Honesty, experience, wisdom). “Experienced, for sure. Wise? Debatable. Honest? No way. The guy is a convicted criminal,” Mr Mattiolo said.

Mr Mattiolo and many of his friends don’t own a TV, which is Mr Berlusconi’s favourite method of communication. “It means he’s losing a lot of younger people – instead, they’re being courted on social media by the 5-Star Movement," he said.

"But older people are going for him. My grandmother just told me she plans to vote for Berlusconi. I asked her why, and she said: 'Because I saw him talking about supporting pensioners on TV.'

"That’s his weapon, manipulating the media… he’s always done that.”

The 5-Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, has risen from a protest movement to a major political force with polls indicating it is Italy’s single most popular party. However, its opposition to coalition-building means it is considered unlikely to get the first chance to try to form a government.

Meanwhile, the Northern League’s strong anti-immigration rhetoric has had some success with voters. But as a right-wing movement, “its success is capped”, says Mr Bosoni. “It scares the moderates.”

Then there is the ruling centre-left Democratic Party, which is in disarray. Led by former premier Matteo Renzi, who was forced to quit in 2016 after losing a referendum, it has been damaged by a series of internal splits and banking scandals.

“This election is more about a defeat of the left, rather than a victory of the right,” said Gustavo Piga, professor of economics at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. “That’s why we’re seeing Berlusconi rise up again from the ashes.”

Mr Berlusconi’s stance on Europe is also reassuring to conservative voters such as Mr Baronio, who reject the 5-Star Movement’s calls for a referendum on the euro. Mr Berlusconi has said quitting the single currency would be “unsustainable” for the economy, although he has floated the idea of a double currency to woo his Northern League coalition partners.

“At the moment in Italy, there are parties fighting against the system and against the euro,” Mr Baronio said. “Mr Berlusconi can keep these parties quiet. He realises that the European Union is something that has helped avoid wars over 60 years.”

A parliamentary insider, speaking to The National near Forza Italia’s campaign headquarters in central Rome, said that it is this image of a “saviour” that is ultimately behind Mr Berlusconi’s comeback.

“Berlusconi is seen as a saviour to moderate voters — striking the right note on the economy, on pensions, on immigration, and on Europe. He has learnt to enter the institution and shy away from populistic movements.”

For now, everything is quiet around the campaign headquarters. Mr Berlusconi, it is understood, spends most of his time at his residence in Milan. But with just over six weeks to go until voting day, Italians across the country can expect to see much more of him both in person and on TV.

In a career that has been full of surprises, there could still be more twists in the tale.

“I always think Berlusconi won’t win,” Mr Mattiolo said, with a rueful laugh. “But he always surprises me.”

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