Discredited Berlusconi set to bounce back

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The Independent Online
ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

For a man who has an indifferent record as government leader, who is treated with suspicion by the international community, who has already been squeezed out of power once, is now being pursued through the courts on corruption charges and faces constant challenges from his own political allies, Silvio Berlusconi is really doing rather well for himself.

With a little over two weeks to go before Italy's third general election in four years, the media tycoon-turned-politician is still very much in the driving seat of the conservative coalition that he brought into government last time round. What's more, as the campaign develops, he is making all the running against his adversaries on the centre-left.

According to the last opinion polls that can legally be published before election day (they are banned in the last three weeks), the Freedom Alliance - made up of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party and the reformed neo-fascist National Alliance - appears to be nudging very slightly ahead of its rival coalition bloc, a far broader grouping of leftists, environmentalists and moderate Catholics known as the Olive Tree.

The secret? Mr Berlusconi is producing a fine-tuned, but essentially identical, version of the political platform that catapulted him into the centre of politics in 1994. Vote for me, he says, and I will make Italy as successful as my business empire. I will create jobs, cut taxes, put Italy back on the international map and reform the institutions of state to create stable and durable government.

Never mind that Mr Berlusconi failed to do any of these things in his seven months in office last time around. Never mind the lack of detail in his programme. Never mind that he and Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance, present a far more radical right-wing profile than most voters would normally feel comfortable with.

Mr Berlusconi is an able communicator, especially on the television stations he owns. His sun-tanned face and ever-optimistic tone seem to be working. Most remarkably, he has managed to twist all his judicial problems into a political issue: the magistrates are controlled by the left, he argues, and they are out to get him.

The mood in the opposition camp is nervous, if not downright fatalistic. "Berlusconi is so good at playing the victim that it is impossible for us to fight the campaign on his weaknesses: the conflict of interest between his television empire and his political career, his questionable business practices, or his links with corrupt politicians in the past," said one volunteer at the Olive Tree's headquarters.

Instead, the dominant issue has been taxation. Both sides agree that the tax system is too complicated (there are more than 100 separate income taxes). Both agree widespread evasion has to be vigorously combated, both through law enforcement and by overhauling the inefficient and corrupt state sector so that taxpayers feel they get their money's worth. Both sides even agree that, long term, taxes should come down since many households are surrendering 50 per cent of their income to make up for others who dodge payment.

But somehow Mr Berlusconi has managed to persuade voters that there is an argument, and that he is winning it. Without committing himself, he has invoked the US presidential candidate Steve Forbes' call for a flat rate and suggested that income tax could be reduced immediately. The centre- left, meanwhile, has been less flamboyant but more realistic, saying Italy has to get its massive public deficit under control before any promises can be made.

The crunch moment of the campaign was a confrontation between Mr Berlusconi and the leader of the Olive Tree, Romano Prodi, before an audience of small businessmen. Mr Berlusconi was in his own constituency, earning generous applause for every utterance - and for sheer debating skills, he beat Mr Prodi hands down.

So unnerved was Mr Prodi, an intelligent but not particularly incisive or forceful speaker, that he cancelled a second scheduled debate on prime- time television. "It was really painful," admitted the campaign worker. "It seems we are condemned to be right but for nobody to believe us."

The centre-left is perhaps a shade over-pessimistic, the result of being excluded from power for the last 50 years. Opinion polls show voter trust to be much higher in its leaders, and political analysts believe that short of a decisive centre- right victory - which does not seem very likely - the Olive Tree is still likely to be an important component in whatever government emerges after polling day.

What could swing the contest is the performance of the prime minister, Lamberto Dini, who has set up his own party. He has provisionally hitched himself to the centre-left, but he is a conservative by temperament and a former Berlusconi acolyte, and has not ruled out a swing back to the right.

Political sources say Mr Dini's long-term aim may be to supplant Messrs Berlusconi and Fini and form a more respectable conservative bloc. Such a group might be reinforced by moderate conservatives disillusioned with Mr Berlusconi as well as prominent figures such as Antonio Di Pietro, the former anti-corruption magistrate who wants to enter politics but seems unable to decide whose side to take.

Mr Di Pietro, regularly voted Italy's most popular public figure, is another anti-Berlusconi conservative. He has just thrown off a slew of judicial mud thrown at him by supporters of Mr Berlusconi, who attempted to put him on trial for abuses of office, and could yet be considered a compromise choice for government leader or senior cabinet minister if the election produces no clear result.

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