Berlusconi forgets to hold his tongue on polling day

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The Independent Online

He has conducted a campaign after his own character: innovative, abrasive and domineering. But when Silvio Berlusconi harangued reporters outside his local polling station after voting in Milan on Saturday, his adversaries hit the roof.

He has conducted a campaign after his own character: innovative, abrasive and domineering. But when Silvio Berlusconi harangued reporters outside his local polling station after voting in Milan on Saturday, his adversaries hit the roof.

The Prime Minister, they said, was in violation of Article 9 of the election law, which prohibits campaigning once polling is under way. Conviction could mean one year's imprisonment.

"He's violated the electoral silence," said one opponent. "The head of the government has become Italy's number one outlaw, on the sacred days which are the foundation of democracy," said another.

"He's so terrified of the verdict of the ballot box," said a third, "that he continues to break the rules, turning himself once again into a fourth-rate fairground barker".

Mr Berlusconi's sin was to become the first Italian politician (it is claimed) since the advent of democracy to break the rule that "politicians hold their tongues while Italy votes".

Goaded, it appears, by a reporter who asked him: "What would happen if the centre-right was defeated at the election?", he angrily replied: "It's an unthinkable hypothesis", then let rip with a long rant on the extremism and anti-Europeanism of the opposition, the necessity of a strong foreign policy, and the folly of throwing away votes on smaller parties (including his coalition allies). Mr Berlusconi's impromptu speech concluded a campaign that began, in effect, with his new year facelift and came to a crescendo last week with the release in Iraq of three Italian hostages.

On Friday Mr Berlusconi delivered his final election trick: millions of personalised text messages from the Prime Minister, urging people to vote.

Italy's opposition parties hit back with jokey messages of their own. One of them read: "For everybody who has a heart ... a message from [Berlusconi's wife] Veronica Lario: Restore the husband and father to his family..."

There is an edge of desperation to Mr Berlusconi's recent stunts. If his party, Forza Italia, gets significantly less than the 25.2 per cent of the vote it obtained in the last European election in 1999, it will desperately weaken his position within the ruling coalition. And the calls for him to throw in the towel will be strident.

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