Don Murray: The Italian job, Berlusconi's improbable comeback

Italians head to the polls Sunday in a two-day election that has transfixed austerity-conscious Europe with the surprise ascent of the unpredictabe Silvio Berlusconi, still mired in sex and money scandals. What is his allure? Don Murray explores.

Italians go to the polls Sunday in a two-day election that has transfixed Europe

What, me worry? Almost hounded from office 15 months ago by a series of sex scandals, among other things, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi is in the midst of an improbable comeback, in which his new coalition could well control the Italian upper house, if not both.

"The Italians saw in him only the tenor for whom they raved as they had for Caruso. As one does with tenors, they enjoyed his good long notes and the melody without paying attention to the words..."

No, this is not Silvio Berlusconi we are talking about. This is a description of the Italian public's love for fascist leader Benito Mussolini, by biographer Paolo Monelli.

Still, it is very apt in the present political circumstances as Italians head to the polls Sunday in a two-day election that has transfixed austerity-conscious Europe because, amazingly, the unpredictably operatic Berlusconi (an admirer of Mussolini, it turns out) is back. Well, almost.

How can this be, outsiders ask?

The man was convicted of fraud just a few months ago (he's appealing) and his trial for procuring a 17-year-old underage prostitute is ongoing.

In other countries, either charge would sink a politician without a trace. But this is Italy where an entire political elite was shown to be awash in the slime of corruption 20 years ago, opening the door to a new man and a new party — Berlusconi and Forza Italia.

Yet the scandals continued, many involving Berlusconi and his men and women.

And now, the thinking goes, Italians suffer from "scandal fatigue," in which many believe that all their leaders are more or less corrupt.

Berlusconi plays to this; it's another note in the sonata of delusion and self-delusion that he performs each evening for his fellow citizens.

The showman and his stage

Forget the words. As with Caruso, and Mussolini, it is the music that counts — the spectacle.

And the Berlusconi show is as raucous and bizarre as ever. His energy, his smile, his heavy makeup and dyed, transplanted hair — it all belies, and tries to disguise, his 76 years.

The contenders, from top: Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of Italy's main centre-left party; Beppe Grillo, the comedian-activist whose Five Star Movement is attracting almost one in seven Italian voters; Mario Monti, the economist PM for the past two years who is running almost dead last. (Associated Press / Reuters / Reuters)

He finds astounding ways of grabbing headlines. On international Holocaust day, January 27, he praised Mussolini. Well, yes, he said, Mussolini's anti-Jewish laws were a bad thing, but he'd been reading about Mussolini, and "in so many other ways he did well." 

The outcry was enormous and clearly just what Berlusconi wanted. People were talking about him again.

These days, he is on television almost every night (he owns all the main private channels), his rallies are one-man shows, even when he shares the stage with his political "partner," Roberto Maroni, the head of the Northern League.

(Maroni says he will be prime minister should their coalition win because, publicly, Berlusconi says he's not in the running for the job. But on stage, Maroni, the "next prime minister," gets five minutes, while il Cavaliere — the Knight — Berlusconi expounds for 90.)

The act isn't new, but it's honed. Berlusconi jokes with professional timing, he defends bribery, he insults European leaders. Germany's Angela Merkel is a favourite target.

At one recent rally he called her "an eastern bureaucrat," a slighting reference to the fact that she grew up in Communist East Germany.

Plus he offers giveaways. This time it's an instant repeal of the much disliked property tax law introduced by Prime Minister Mario Monti, an economist and non-politician called in to reduce the government's almost overpowering deficit when Berlusconi was forced from office 15 months ago.

Berlusconi told the faithful the refund would be in their pockets by the end of March, in cash. "You can pick up the money at the post office if you vote for me."

The next day he offered an amnesty for tax evaders. The effect would be to lower tax revenue by almost $160 billion — six percent of the country's sovereign debt.

One last aria

"Silvio, you're a legend!" cried an ecstatic supporter. For his opponents, and European leaders, he's more like a nightmare.

Vote buying, corruption, demagoguery, his opponents cried.

The German government rolled out two of its biggest guns — the finance minister and the foreign minister — to warn of the dire consequences for the still faltering euro if Italians returned Silvio to power when they vote Sunday and Monday.

But he just kept climbing in the polls. Two weeks before the vote his right-wing alliance had moved to within five points of the long-leading centre-left coalition led by the plodding, cigar-chomping ex-communist, Pier Luigi Bersani.

Karima El Mahroug, better known by her stage name Ruby the Heartstealer, arrives at a Milan court to testify on behalf of Berlusconi. Prosecutors say she was 17 when they first played bunga-bunga. (Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters)

Publishing poll results is now banned in Italy until polling day but Berlusconi happily tells supporters his alliance is neck and neck with the centre-left.

Coming first is crucial because the winning party or alliance gets a bonus of 50 seats in the lower house, the better to form a solid government.

But lost in Berlusconi's seductive music is the fact that Italy ranks 169 out of 179 counties in economic growth since the euro was introduced in 2002. It is battling it out with Haiti and Zimbabwe.

In fact, Italy is only one of two of the 27 European countries to show negative growth per capita in that time. And in eight of those 11 years Berlusconi was the prime minister.

How quickly people forget.

Berlusconi's insight is that Italians want to forget. They want a spectacle, and he gives it to them. And with the passing years the show becomes wilder. But that, too, works.

The only thing that might trip him up is the theatrical competition. In the election campaign itself he has to contend with another electoral clown, Beppe Grillo, a real-life comic.

His joke-filled, anger-fuelled campaign against the elites has picked up 14 per cent support in the polls from voters of both the left and right, many of them Berlusconi people.

Outside the campaign there have been big distractions, as well, including the Pope, another German, whose shock resignation pushed the election off the front pages for days.

None of this was good news for il Cavaliere. He needs the oxygen of publicity, good or bad, to climb in the polls, to sing his one last aria.

Almost 50 years ago Luigi Barzini, the author of The Italians, explained that "inevitably Italians are tempted to applaud more those performances which stray dangerously far from reality." Applaud, and even vote for them.