Berlusconi gets a taste for the Tea Party

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The Independent Online

It is the grass-roots phenomenon that has transformed right-wing politics in America and prompted many overseas to scratch their heads at the antics of its more extreme adherents. But if Silvio Berlusconi has his way, the Tea Party could be coming to Italy. The beleaguered conservative premier has told supporters that the country's right wing needs its own movement in the style of the US rebel grouping in order to recapture the political initiative.

Faced with the loss of his government's parliamentary majority and the continued threat from corruption charges, the Prime Minister has this week refreshed his perennial outbursts on the need to rip up the constitution and shrink the power of the judiciary.

New poll figures, meanwhile, show his government's approval rating down to a record low of 30 per cent.

"We have to give people a new dream," he is quoted as saying in the opposition paper La Repubblica. "We can do this with something similar to the Tea Party Americans. The Pdl [People of Freedom party] is not enough."

The Tea Party sprang up on the back of disgust at the American government's bail-out of collapsing banks and insurers. It has since snowballed into a movement that shouts about the rejuvenating effects of less government, free enterprise and the miraculous power of tax cuts to cure all economic woes.

Mr Berlusconi is said to have been in contact with right-wing activists in the US to learn about their election strategies. In addition, La Repubblica claims that he has glamorous right-winger Daniela Santanché earmarked as the Italian version of Sarah Palin, while his own Mediaset would fulfil the role of conservative mouthpiece Fox News – although some wags noted yesterday it appears to have been doing this for years already.

Despite his strengths as a populist politician, experts are not convinced that a Berlusconi-inspired Tea Party movement is likely to take off in Italy.

"This is Berlusconi trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I'm not sure he, or the rest of them, are even sure what the Tea Party brigade are about. Anyway, the Prime Minister doesn't want less government, but simply government he can control," said James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome.

The vice-president of the ruling Pdl party's MPs, Osvaldo Napoli, said he was not aware of plans for an Italian version of the Tea Party. He added that a two-party political system, along the lines of the US, would be needed before a Tea Party-type movement had any effect in Italy.

Other differences in substance and circumstance between America's morally conservative Tea Party supporters and the larger-than-life Italian premier are also difficult to ignore. Mr Berlusconi certainly sought to court the Catholic vote for years. But he is dogged by rumours of alleged romps with sex workers and dalliances with starlets.