He couldn't, could he? Silvio Berlusconi aims for return to power

Voter apathy and a lack of alternatives could help the former premier back into power when Italy goes to the polls this weekend

Milan

"Scandals are the fertiliser of Western democracy,” said a character in Dario Fo’s stage satire, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. The Nobel Prize-winning Italian writer may have penned this in jest, but it will take on new  resonance this weekend, when  Italy’s corruption-weary public goes to the polls.

Italy is a country so fed up with its leaders that it has reached a political deadlock – with millions still undecided over which of the seven parties in the running they will choose to vote for.

And it is this deadlock that could allow former premier Silvio Berlusconi – who has faced a catalogue of sleaze and corruption allegations, and  epitomises much of what voters deplore in their politicians – back into power.

To outsiders, it may seem inconceivable that Berlusconi remains so high on the country’s political agenda. Just 15 months ago, leaving Italy on the edge of a financial abyss, a scandal-plagued Berlusconi was forced to resign from the office of premier and make way for Professor Mario Monti, the Italian economist, who was appointed as prime minister and head of a technocrat government. Mr Monti managed to calm the markets, but not a great deal else.

In his first eight weeks, Mr Monti probably wielded more power than an Italian premier ever had, but he failed to use it to take an axe to waste, cartels and corruption. As result he had to raise taxes to fill the hole in Italy’s balance sheets.

With Italy mired in its longest recession for 20 years, these tax rises exacerbated the effect of austerity measures and appear to have left the Italian economy in a downward spiral; its economy is smaller now than it was 12 years ago.

With Berlusconi’s ‘bunga bunga’ parties having made Italy the laughing stock of Europe, and Monti having apparently left Italians poorer, the election ought to be a doddle for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). But Italian politics are not so simple.

Enter the PD’s avuncular leader Pierluigi Bersani. He may have left his communist roots well behind him – and can even claim the credit for some useful liberalisation of the economy under the short-lived 2006-2008 Prodi government, but moderates and free-marketeers regard Mr Bersani’s links to the left-wing Puglian governor Nichi Vendola and Italy’s old-school public sector unions with grave suspicion. And there are at least two far-left  parties further to split the anti-Berlusconi vote.

During the final weeks in the run-up to a general election opinion polls are banned. But combining the most recent ones before the blackout suggests the Democratic Party, with around 33 per cent support, has a useful but not impregnable lead of between four and nine per cent over the nearest rival. Incredibly, that rival is led by Silvio Berlusconi. Scandals, financial chaos and age appear not to have dimmed the 76-year-old tycoon’s appeal among many voters.

A raft of effective TV appearances, anti-austerity rhetoric and even vows to pay voters back millions in taxes, have put him within shouting distance of the Democratic Party.

Many pundits say that the gap is too large to make up in a week. But more cautious observers note that Berlusconi trailed by three to six per cent in the 2006 election, and very nearly won.

Another rival, Beppe Grillo – leader of the Five Star Movement – might unintentionally give Berlusconi some extra help. In another sign of a country desperate for an alternative to the current political elite, 15 per cent of voters are reported to be ready to cast their ballot for the firebrand comic, who offers no political experience, and campaigns on a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of bile aimed at the country’s ruling classes.

Dario Fo appeared on stage with Mr Grillo and his Five Star Movement on Wednesday night in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo. The crowd there dwarfed the turnouts achieved so far by the  mainstream political parties – indicating the influence protest voters  might wield in an election that is not just pivotal for Italy, whose economic health is also crucial for the survival of the Euro.

The Five Star Movement has taken voters from all the mainstream parties. Most pundits think, however, that the centre-left is likely to cede more voters to this protest party than the centre-right.

The large number of undecided voters is a further complication. The leading Italian pollster Renato Mannheimer, suggested this week in the Corriere della Sera newspaper that one in four Italians had yet to decide for whom he or she was voting, and that five million voters would probably make their mind up on the day.

If, as many experts are predicting, Mr Bersani wins the largest share of the vote then he will be automatically assigned a majority in the lower house, and will be asked to form a government.

All eyes will be on the Senate, however, which has equal power in the Italian parliamentary system. Mr Bersani is less likely to win a majority in the upper house and may have to call on the support of Mario Monti (who is running under the Civic Choice banner with his rag-tag coalition of conservative Catholic centrists and moderate centre-right figures), in order to pass legislation.

Mr Monti’s party trails behind Mr Grillo’s in the polls, but his presence in a position of influence might reassure foreign investors and the money markets, as well as increase the likelihood of much-needed labour reforms. However, Mr Monti’s influence may strain the PD’s links with far-left parties, which could be problematic if it turned out their support was also needed.

Italian voters – enviously aware of the modern centre-left and centre-right political parties in France, Germany and the UK, where flexible labour markets and rights for divorcees and homosexuals are the norm - have few other options in Italy’s tribal, Vatican-influenced political system.

Oscar Giannino’s liberal, libertarian, Stop the Decline party, with its emphasis on privatisation and slashing Italy’s self-defeating tax burden, offers interesting alternatives. But it’s a minnow in the polls, and its chances won’t have been improved by the news this week that Mr Giannino faked a master’s degree at a prestigious US university.

Instead, populist politicians have dominated this election. With some distance to make up in the polls, Berlusconi promised unaffordable tax rebates, and attacked spending cuts – and Germany – whenever he saw a microphone pointing his way.

Taking a break from politician-bashing, Beppe Grillo attacked the EU and what he saw as its domination by the French. “They come here to sell French milk, French cheeses; here, in the land of cheese and milk”, he roared. Mr Grillo threatened to go over every EU treaty with a  fine-tooth comb. This is no surprise; along with Mr Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition partner, the Northern League, The Five Star Movement is committed to a referendum on EU membership.

The offers of populist remedies are everywhere, with Beppe Grillo shouting loudest of all. But what Italy needs now is not anti-politics. It needs good politics.

With so much riding on the fate of the EU’s third biggest economy, the apparatchiks in Brussels will be hoping Italian voters come to this conclusion.

Hot topics: The challenges

Economy

Mario Monti may have calmed the money markets, but his hard-hitting tax rises have been blamed for sinking the housing market. Italy is the eurozone’s third largest economy, and the continent will be watching these elections closely.

Corruption and organised crime

The country’s three main crime organisations are among a minority that have not suffered in the downturn. Corruption is rife: the country’s state auditor estimates that €60bn (£52bn) is syphoned out of the state coffers every year. It would take a strong leader to tackle both.

Social reforms

Many Italian voters are enviously aware of the modern centre-left and centre-right political parties in France, Germany and the UK, where rights for divorcees and homosexuals are the norm. But in Italy there is little choice for those who seek social reforms.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz