Berlusconi boosted by pessimism of young

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The youth of Italy are increasingly gloomy about the future, according to a newspaper poll, and their despondency is helping Silvio Berlusconi consolidate his grip on the general election, due in less than three weeks.

The election slogan of the People of Freedom, the media magnate's coalition, is "Rise Again, Italy!", but a poll published by La Repubblica newspaper over the weekend indicates that it is dismal expectations rather than optimistic hopes that are driving voters under 30 into his camp.

Mr Berlusconi has maintained a steady lead of seven per cent or more over his centre-left rival, the outgoing Mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni, the head of his new Democratic Party.

Mr Berlusconi stormed to victory in 2001 with the promise of doing for Italy what he had already done for himself, ushering in a new economic miracle like that which transformed the country in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was making his way as a brash property developer. But his five years in power, the first full term in Italy's post-war history, failed to bring the vaunted revolution. The inconsequential wrangling that marked Romano Prodi's 20 months in power after this only deepened the nation's mood of dismay. And now the man they call "il Cavaliere" ("the Knight") seems set to reap the reward.

Two years ago, 43 per cent of Italians aged 18 to 29 sounded out by the Demos&Pi polling company agreed that the social position of the young was likely to deteriorate. Today that figure has jumped to 58 per cent. The average response of all polled from 18 upwards was even starker, with 63 per cent saying things were getting worse, compared with 49 per cent in 2006.

The result, according to the pollster Ilvo Diamanti, has been an important shift in voting tendencies. "In the Nineties the youth vote shifted decisively to the left," he wrote. "Today, on the eve of the election, we are seeing a substantial realignment." And that's to the advantage of Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom.

First-time voters are more likely to vote for the left, but those with experience of work, which is ever more likely to be informal and unrelated to the old certainties of unions and solid contracts, find themselves more in sympathy with the "enterprise culture" represented by Mr Berlusconi.

"In the last few years, and above all after the election of 2006, Italian society has been hit by a real 'collapse of the future'," wrote Mr Diamanti. "Today, almost two out of three Italians believe that in the near future the young will have a worse social and economic position than their parents."

Mr Berlusconi has once again demonstrated his presentational genius with an easy-to-understand manifesto of "seven missions for the future of Italy", promising tax cuts, new infrastructure projects, liberalisation of private and public services and a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Mr Veltroni's Democratic Party claims to offer a decisive break from the centre-left "Union" led by Mr Prodi at the last election. But while his manifesto does not have to accommodate a stretched alliance of Communists, social libertarians and Christian democrats, it is beset by the same vice, full of windy, worthy abstractions. "The great demographic, migratory, technological, economic, energy, climatic and strategic changes which have marked the turn of the century have changed in a few years the face of the planet," ran its opening paragraph. It's unclear how many of Italy's morose youth will have the stomach to read on.