Berlusconi's popularity slashed as he celebrates record 1,060 days in office

Silvio Berlusconi entered the history books yesterday when his government became, at 1,060 days, the longest surviving in the history of the Italian republic.

He broke the record held by his late patron, the Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, who held his government for 1,059 days between 1983 and 1986.

Post-war Italian governments have been a byword for fragility, often crumbling through internal infighting within a year or less: Mr Berlusconi's was the 59th to be sworn in since 1945. One month shy of three years in office, Italy's richest man has broken with that record of weakness and impermanence.

But any celebrations were behind closed doors. A poster stuck up around the country in recent days, showing an exhausted-looking prime minister smiling wanly and promising to "stick with the job", was the only formal acknowledgement of the government's achievement. Mr Berlusconi, in Paris yesterday for talks with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac, offered no comment.

One reason for the tycoon's diffidence is that the road ahead looks steep and thorny. European elections on 13 June will be a crucial test of the government's popularity. And if a scientific opinion poll published yesterday by La Repubblica is correct, Mr Berlusconi could be in for a stinging defeat.

The poll, of 1,002 adults across Italy with political views representing the population, found that more than two-thirds - 67.7 per cent - believe the Berlusconi government has failed to keep the promises it made prior to the election of 2001 that swept it into power. The figure in a similar poll taken two years ago was 34 per cent.

Approval of the prime minister has slumped in those two years from 48 per cent to 31 per cent. Nor is there much enthusiasm for what he has achieved: the only measure most Italians overwhelmingly approve is the introduction of penalty points on driving licences last year, which brought reduction in traffic accidents. No other measure enjoys the approval of more than 40 per cent.

The one bright spot for Mr Berlusconi in the poll is that the centre-left opposition has failed to benefit much from the government's growing unpopularity. Although its ratings have risen, support remains anaemic, with only one-third of those polled supporting it.

Piero Fassino, the leader of the Left Democrats, the largest opposition party, said: "Three years ago, Berlusconi said that with the right in power everyone would have more opportunity, more security and more certainty. Three years on, no one has seen this certainty and opportunity. And Italians are asking themselves if they don't have less opportunity than before."

An MP in Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, Isabella Bertoni, rejecting Mr Fassino's "lies", said the government had cut taxes, raised pensions for the poor, reformed the labour market, reformed the school system and set in motion "great public works".

Mr Berlusconi's problem, however, is that the economy has stalled and most Italians feel poorer than they did when he came to power.

He said there would be a meeting of the leaders of his coalition government next week to thrash out his key pre-election gambit - a tax cut.

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