Cracks start to appear in cult of Berlusconi

Thousands turned up to mark 10 years of the Prime Minister's party, but his coalition is in trouble and voters are losing patience

Silvio Berlusconi marked the 10th anniversary of his party, Forza Italia, with a rally of the faithful yesterday, pledging to fight more "battles for liberty" and thundering against "communists" in the judiciary and the political and media elite who he maintains are still out to get him.

"Sei bellissimo!" "You're beautiful!" roared some in the crowd of 4,000, as the billionaire businessman who turned Italian politics upside down took the podium at the climax of a rally orchestrated with the slickness that comes naturally to a man whose company owns three television channels.

It was the first time Mr Berlusconi had shown his supporters his new face after plastic surgery which kept him out of the public eye for a month. If his orders to the surgeon were "take off 10 years", they were fulfilled to the last jowl and wrinkle.

But the flattest face and the best production values in the world could not disguise the fact that after more than two and a half years in power - close to an Italian post-war record - Mr Berlusconi's government is in trouble. Strikes halt the cities day after day; inflation has led to a slump in sales; and the parties within the centre-right coalition are at war.

The voters, who hoped the financial genius that made Mr Berlusconi the richest man in Italy would rub off on the national economy, are having second thoughts. A poll published in the communist daily L'Unita on Friday claimed that more than 65 per cent are fed up with Mr Berlusconi's government, while only 7.4 per cent said they were "fully satisfied".

A broader survey published in Corriere della Sera found that of 100 electors who voted for Forza Italia at the last general election in 2001, only 40 would do the same again today. Of those 100, 12 have swung across to the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale, whose leader, Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, recently outdid Mr Berlusconi in a poll of individual party leaders. More than one-third have become don't knows - reflecting the fragility of the base of a party that came to power for the first time in 1994, within months of its inception.

Yet for the party loyalists crammed into the Palazzo dei Congressi, in the model suburb built by Mussolini for a world fair that never happened, Mr Berlusconi remains the great communicator, and he gave them all the familiar tunes.

He denounced the communists and the "bureaucracy in robes" who brought down the political class (including Mr Berlusconi's patron, the Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi) in the Tangentopoli ("Bribesville") corruption cases of the early 1990s.

"Our country was embroiled and bloodied in a permanent civil war never seen in any other democratic country," Mr Berlusconi thundered, describing the phenomenon seen by many outside observers as a long overdue cleaning out of a political system gone rotten. "Ten years ago the communists were communists, in fact and in symbol. Today they have tried to disguise themselves, but the facelift didn't work."

He defended his government's record and downplayed the importance of the fights between the parties in his coalition, stressing that what united them was more important than their divisions.

It was a fighting speech but, with Forza Italia facing European elections in June - its first big test since the general election - is it enough? In his first television address 10 years ago, shown in the hall yesterday, Mr Berlusconi said: "Italy needs a new miracle." Italians are still waiting.

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