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.

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