If Silvio Berlusconi loses today's election in Milan, an event that could precipitate the collapse of his coalition in parliament, the irony will be delicious. For nearly 20 years, Il Cavaliere has been lashing out at the "Communists" he claims are everywhere in Italian public life, enemies of the "liberty" he holds so dear. Often the attacks seem wildly exaggerated: Italy's last few Communist MPs lost their seats years ago. Yet his adversary in Milan, a 62-year-old lawyer called Giuliano Pisapia, is not only an unrepentant Communist, but in his youth was an ultra-leftist, well to the left of the party. And this "extremist", as Mr Berlusconi and his allies have taken to labelling him, this "friend of terrorists", is today within reach of a historic victory.
Milan's mayoral election is confusing – Mr Berlusconi has made sure of that. Obviously he is not running for election, as he is already Prime Minister, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The tycoon's beaming, wrinkle-free face is scattered around the city, and his name is at the top of his party's list of candidates. Letizia Moratti, the mayor running for a second term, a former minister of education in Mr Berlusconi's cabinet and wife of one of the richest men in the city, has been banished to the sidelines.
That's because Ms Moratti, a signora as well-bred as she is wealthy, lacks both punch and charisma. Mr Berlusconi, as we know, lacks neither, and, despite his pretensions to gallantry, he had no hesitation in elbowing her aside to assure his party's victory in what could be a crucial election.
But that victory is far from certain. Even Ms Moratti's opponents expect her to gain the largest share in today's poll, but if she fails to win outright, the contest goes to a run-off in a fortnight's time between the two frontrunners. That alone would be a major setback for Mr Berlusconi: the mayoralty has been clinched in the first round by the centre-right's candidate at every poll for the past 18 years. And the second round is where the real trouble could start, as the PM's other enemies both in the centre and at the wackier anti-political fringes pile on to the Pisapia bandwagon.
"Local elections," the Rome-based commentator James Walston wrote this week, "are normally fairly tedious affairs ... But Berlusconi's Italy is not 'normal', as we well know." Every election since he entered politics in 1994 has, according to Walston, in practice "been a referendum on one man... Berlusconi has staked his reputation and position on the Milan election".
This is Italy's second biggest city after Rome, its biggest industrial centre, the location of the stock exchange, the centre of much that is culturally vital in the country, the home of Leonardo's Last Supper, and La Scala. It is also Mr Berlusconi's town, the city where he was born and bred, where he made his fortune and launched his political career. And no one is in any doubt how important this election is for a man whose career has been written off repeatedly in the past two years, but who, at the age of 73, shows an undiminished appetite for the fight. Every Monday for the past few weeks he has shown up at Milan's Palace of Justice to rebut charges that he had sex with under-age prostitutes, turning the appearances into a political cabaret in which he lambasts the judges as "Communists" and "a cancer to be extirpated".
The centre-right's campaign has been managed with all the slickness and money for which Mr Berlusconi is famous. Il Popolo della Liberta (People of Freedom), Mr Berlusconi's party, has erected gazebos all over town where they hand out booklets on Ms Moratti's achievements, scary leaflets on all the tax rises allegedly planned by the left, and cotton tote bags with the motto "Vota Letizia" printed on them.
In imitation of Mr Berlusconi, the mayor has sent out books to tens of thousands of homes detailing her rather humdrum biography ("I had a lot of friends, and on Saturday and Sunday we went into the countryside. The boys played football, while we watched"). And any billboards not plastered with the PM's face feature the mayor – looking suspiciously younger than her 62 years – embracing pensioners, smiling at engineers and generally looking the image of the well-to-do, moderate career lady she is.
When, in primaries earlier this year, the centre-left chose Giuliano Pisapia as their candidate, Mr Berlus
coni and Ms Moratti must have been guffawing with glee; the Italian left has an unsurpassed gift for shooting itself in the foot, and in rejecting Stefano Boeri, a prominent architect with no political strings, and choosing instead a man from the wilder shores of Marxism, it looked as if they had done it again. But although people who know the city are quick to assert that "Milan will never elect a Communist", this man may be the exception.
He is the son of one of Italy's most celebrated lawyers, a lawyer himself and the trusted friend of the city's comfortable, progressive and powerful bourgeoisie. He also has the looks of a winner: greying, clever, tidy, sensible, but not dull.
His supporters claim that at last they have found a candidate who can unite young and old, left and centre, and call a halt to the abstentions that have crippled the opposition in the past, a candidate who can remove the city from the grip of the money men and shopkeepers who, they say, have an iron grip on the present mayor. Instead, he will make it respond to the needs of the unemployed youth, the residents of the sink estates on the periphery, the disaffected immigrants and everybody who is a victim of the city's appalling air quality.
The campaign has turned into a battle royal of Milan's tribes. Mr Berlusconi owns AC Milan, who have just won the scudetto, the Italian championship, for the first time in seven years. But he does not have a monopoly on the glory of il calcio: the owner of AC Milan's bitter rival, Inter, is Massimo Moratti, the son of an oil billionaire. And Massimo's wife, Milly Moratti, a city councillor and a supporter of Mr Pisapia, has become one of her sister-in-law Letizia's most bitter critics.
This week Letizia Moratti and Giuliano Pisapia met for the only television debate of the campaign in the studios of SkyTG24. The event concluded with a coup de theatre from the mayor: granted the right, by the toss of a coin, to the last word, she produced a sheaf of documents and declared: "I come from a moderate family, contrary to Pisapia who was convicted of stealing a vehicle and beating up a young man."
It was a reference to an incident in her opponent's radical youth which landed him in jail; and the iron rules of the debate barred Mr Pisapia from saying a word in reply. When he did so – immediately afterwards – it was to point out that Ms Moratti had lied: he had not been convicted but acquitted. For the "lady of moderation", it was a gambit straight out of the Berlusconi book, and arguably a sign of desperation. Tomorrow Milan will learn whether the smear paid off.