Berlusconi supporters braced for poll defeat

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The Independent Online

He has been trailing in the opinion polls for two years andremains between three and five points behind his centre-left rival Romano Prodi. Yet there is one corner of Italy where they won't hear a word against him. Milano 2 is the vast luxury housing estate that first made Mr Berlusconi famous as Italy's "king of bricks." With its ochre brown apartment blocks and terracotta mansard roofs surrounded by Scots pines, an ornamental lake and a fountain, tennis courts and football fields, kindergartens, a hotel and the headquarters of several of his most important companies, Milano 2 was a political statement as much as a construction project, "a city where there is everything," as he put it, "from the clinic where one is born to the cemetery", for those able to afford it.

It was also reputedly financed by the Mafia, and was the occasion for one of Mr Berlusconi's first political coups: by persuading Linate airport to change the direction of its flight paths to allow Milano 2's residents to sleep, he doubled the value of flats on the estate overnight.

Thirty years after its construction, Milano 2 still impresses with both its ambition and its detailing. And the residents are still firmly behind Il Padrone.

"We're all Berlusconians here," says Giorgio Antonaci, a bald figure in a black leather jacket and sunglasses with a striking resemblance to the old TV cop Kojak, knocking back a post-prandial Averno in the Empire Bar on the estate.

"The Berlusconi government has done many positive things, the opere grande [such as the projected bridge over the Messina Strait to Sicily], health and pension reform.

"I would give them seven-plus out of 10. It's true that wages have not gone up and employees are fed up for that reason but anybody with property is happy because its value has as much as tripled in these years. I will continue to give him my support."

Mr Antonacci is the owner of a firm that supplies hospital operating theatres around Europe. Business is buoyant, he claims. Behind the bar, the Empire's owner, Luigi, has a different view.

"Look at all the shops around here vacant or for sale," he points out. (And about half the shops on the ground floor of the estate's blocks are on their last legs.) "Nobody's spending any money because their pay packets won't stretch to the end of the month. They don't come in here for a cappucino, they don't go to the restaurants, they go to the discount supermarkets and eat at home.

"We're slipping back to the way things were 40 years ago, when a few people were rich and the rest of us were miserably poor. This is the way capitalism works, destroying the little man and rewarding the rich ..." Luigi is talking like a communist, but oddly he doesn't follow the argument through. "Things are not going well, but if the Communists win we would be up to our necks in shit," he said. "I don't believe in Prodi, he's a turd. Berlusconi is a brilliant man, but to tell the truth politics is not what he's cut out for. But despite all the things he hasn't done, he's still better than the other guy."

Most politicians and commentators have been talking over recent weeks as if the results of the election to be held on 9 and 10 April were already in.

"This is not a country that makes up its mind at the last minute who to vote for," said Roberto Weber, who works for a polling company called SWG. "What counts more is what is created over a period of months, not some extraordinary coup at the last moment." On that basis Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission, and his coalition will make it home in some comfort: the last polls published one week ago, before the pre-election ban came into force, gave the opposition an advantage of between 3.5 and 5 per cent.

But given that the vast majority of Italians make up their minds considerably in advance, the crucial change occurred back in 2004, when support for Forza Italia slumped from 29 to 21 per cent, with some five million failing to go to the polls. With that disaster, Berlusconi's long-term aim of substituting the old Christian Democrat hegemony with his own party's began to look chimerical.

"Five years ago," said Luigi Crespi, at the time one of Mr Berlusconi's number wonks, "Berlusconi did not speak to the heart or the head of the Italians but to their stomachs".

He promised a new miracle. His coalition's programme is full of explanations for why it didn't arrive, but the crucial fact is its non-arrival. "His electorate doesn't want to know any more about him," said Mr Crespi.

Iva Zanicchi, a singer, said in 2001: "Let's try Berlusconi. And if we don't like him we'll give him a kick in the bum." That is what, most analysts expect, is shortly to be delivered.

But Mr Prodi is not counting on it. "In 1996, the polls had Berlusconi in the lead," he pointed out, "but in the end it was I who won."

And many believe that the wildness of Berlusconi's recent behaviour - identifying the Communists in Mr Prodi's coalition with alleged Maoist baby-boilers, storming out of a TV interview after being interrupted, lambasting fellow-industrialists - far from being signs of panic are conscious attempts to rouse the supporters who deserted him in 2004.

With Mr Berlusconi, no one doubts that it will be a fight to the finish and in the past couple of days he has thrown his adversaries into angry confusion about their taxation plans. For Mr Prodi, Corriere della Sera daily warned yesterday, "tax could become the snare in which the feet of the athlete who has led all the way the way risk becoming trapped."

"Berlusconi has always given his best," notes Alexander Stille in a new biography, "when he has his back against the wall".