No more Mr Nice Guy as Berlusconi shocks his voters into action

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The Independent Online

Gone are the jokes, the backslapping, the stabs at chivalry. Stripped away are the intimations of ordinariness, the attempt to identify himself with the Italian everyman that has served him well for years. This week Italians have watched agog as Silvio Berlusconi morphed before their eyes into a tinpot dictator, stabbing his finger at the television camera, banging his fists on the podium, red in the face with rage, threatening his enemies and vowing never to surrender.

Italians go to vote in the general election tomorrow and Monday, but in the dying days of the campaign it has become a referendum on the man who has ruled Italy for the past five years. "For better or worse," wrote Massimo Franco in Corriere della Sera yesterday, "Silvio Berlusconi has succeeded in transforming the election into a referendum on himself. Whether he wins or loses, he has radicalised the electorate to a greater degree than happened [at the election of] 2001." James Walston, professor of political science at the American University of Rome, explains: "Mr Berlusconi's strategy is based on the belief that he can only win by persuading those who voted for him in 2001, but this time prefer not to bother, to get out and vote." The viewing figures for the second TV debate with Romano Prodi last Monday were thus a heavy blow: down from 16 million to 12 million.

His effort since then has been to reach those of his support base for whom the low-key debates were a turn-off. "The aggressive, even vulgar tone of the Prime Minister is aimed at spreading fear," writes Massimo Franco, "and at forcing to the polling station that band of public opinion not registered in the opinion polls".

In the process this week Italy's Prime Minister has accused the "shameful, infamous" magistrates of Milan of plotting to bring him down, and the parties of the left of conspiring with left-wing journalists to bar him from television, thereby constituting what he called "a regime".

Reinforcing the fear, Mr Berlusconi's Minister of the Interior, Giuseppe Pisanu, claimed that two Islamist terror attacks had been foiled, On Thursday Mr Berlusconi said that the UN should send observers to monitor Italy's polls. "They must come to defend us from the gentlemen who are experts at stitch-ups," he said. "If things go on like this who knows what they will cook up."

The positions Mr Berlusconi and his supporters have taken are at the extreme edge of paranoia. It is Mr Berlusconi who has plotted for years to cheat justice, by pushing through new laws, not the judges who have plotted against him. He was prevented from making as many TV appearances as he wanted by rules sanctioned by his own government. Mr Pisanu's talk of thwarted terror attacks were dismissed by opponents as propaganda.

And on the warning of threats to fair polling from the left, Romano Prodi commented: "Berlusconi [as Prime Minister] has everything in his hands, what imbroglio can he fear? He possesses all the elements to check."

So was Mr Berlusconi's appearance of uncontrollable rage just an act? "He appeared in a fury," wrote La Repubblica. "He wasn't, it was a pose." But that was meagre reassurance. "He is playing to the end and beyond all limits the card of conflict, of irrational division, of the disastrous adventure," the report went on. "Looking at him, it was right to be worried. His eyes seemed possessed and his jaw was set. He shouted at the top of his voice. He slammed his fists on the table. He chose the most hurtful words ... He represented himself as standing alone against absolute evil." When the last opinion polls were published two weeks ago, the centre-right lagged 3.5 to 5 points behind the centre-left. If at close of polls on Monday Mr Berlusconi's change of strategy results in his winning the election, he will be recognised as a political genius - and the most dangerous leader western Europe has produced since the end of Fascism.