The leader with the best lines? Silvio's back! (and this time he's more outrageous than ever)

Italy's election campaign has brought out the best in Berlusconi – or the worst, if you think his politically incorrect sense of humour is no laughing matter. By Peter Popham
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Happy days are here again: Silvio Berlusconi is about to win another Italian election. The dog days of Romano Prodi are nearly over. The last time polls were published – they are banned in the last two weeks of Italian campaigns – the media mogul's People of Freedom coalition was 5 to 10 percentage points ahead of its principal opponent, the Democratic Party, led by Walter Veltroni.

Something could yet go gravely wrong. But by this time next week, Europe's funniest court jester should be back in place, cap, bells and tickling stick firmly attached, ready to keep us in stitches for another five years.

During Mr Berlusconi's last spell in power, from 2001 to 2006, he stunned the European Parliament by comparing a German socialist MEP to a kapo in a Nazi concentration camp, at a moment when Italy was rotating president of the EU and Mr Berlusconi was supposed to be on his best behaviour.

He praised the looks of the young and handsome Danish Prime Minister, on a visit to Rome, joking that he was thinking of introducing him to his wife, Veronica, because he was even better looking than the Mayor of Venice (a bearded Marxist philosopher), implying that the two were having an affair. (It transpired that the wife and the philosopher had never even met.)

He made the sign of the cuckold's horns behind the head of a dignitary in one of those group photos heads of state are always posing for, and mimed sodomising his chauffeur when the latter was bending down. When Tony and Cherie Blair came calling he greeted them wearing a striped bandana, which led to immediate speculation (later confirmed) that it had been donned to hide the scars from a hair transplant.

In an interview with The Spectator, he claimed that Mussolini was a much better dictator than Saddam Hussein; all he did, he said, was to send various political opponents "on holiday". Challenged, he first denied saying it at all, then claimed he had drunk too much champagne with his British guests. One of the interviewers, Boris Johnson – some might say Britain's own comedy politican – told this writer that they drank nothing but "copious quantities of iced tea".

Mr Berlusconi has been out of the limelight during Mr Prodi's two years in power, falling out with his former allies, collapsing once on stage and prey to rumours about the state of his health and his appetite for politics. He staged a miniature volcanic eruption in the garden of his Sardinian villa in a bid to regain attention, and had an ugly falling-out with his wife for which he had to apologise publicly.

But since the collapse of Mr Prodi's government, which he had long plotted, the gleam is back in his eye and the nonsense in his patter. He has also been working on a new batch of gags. While in the process of whipping up electoral support around the country, he has been trying them out on his fans.

Here is a selection, in no particular order. The right has all the pretty girls. "The left has no taste," he said, "even when it comes to women." When Veronica gets mad at him, he recently told a crowd, he hides from her under the bed. "Why do all the cartoonists portray me as a dwarf?" he moaned. He was taller, he pointed out, than both Vladimir Putin and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Legal problems have dogged Mr Berlusconi's political career from the outset, but during this campaign he hit on a novel way to rid himself of pesky prosecutors: get them committed. Judges and lawyers should be required to have regular mental health checks, he said. (He has previously declared that anyone who wanted to be a judge had to be "mad, mad, mad", so this may be his way of clearing out the benches wholesale.)

Since the scandal of contaminated buffalo-milk mozzarella broke, many politicians have been photographed greedily gobbling the stuff, to show solidarity with the makers. Mr Berlusconi showed a bit more imagination: in Naples, the mozzarella heartland, he nibbled a bit then pretended to collapse in agony.

For years, Mr Berlusconi has been dismissed as a ridiculous politician, but despite his miserable record of achievement in power he has already outlasted Tony Blair, France's Jacques Chirac, Spain's José Maria Aznar and Gerhard Schröder of Germany. If he wins at the weekend he will see the back of George Bush, too, and perhaps Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel, as well.

This will become known in Italy as the Age of Berlusconi, and in Europe he will be the Grand Old Man. There is a strong chance he will even achieve what has long been supposed to be his ultimate ambition and become Italy's president.

Is it really plausible that a man can achieve all this simply on the back of being a charming, roguish buffoon? Even in a country as anomalous as Italy there must be a more nuanced explanation.

Mr Berlusconi has shown repeatedly that he is capable of persuading many millions of Italians that the true solution to their difficulties lies in the realms of fantasy. And it's a recipe they still appear to prefer to the alternative. Italy's problems demand tough leaders willing to take unpopular decisions and sell them to the electorate, in the conviction that the decisions will have begun to pay dividends by the time they are due for re-election.

This was the approach Romano Prodi has tried to take on crucial questions such as Italy's public debt – third biggest in the world – and the national flag-carrier Alitalia, which is on the verge of going bust. But he couldn't persuade enough voters that he was up to the challenge, nor enough of his legion of coalition partners to give him the backing required to pull it off.

Mr Prodi has tried to implement what Freud called the Reality Principle. Mr Berlusconi goes with the Pleasure Principle and, as in 1994 and 2001, it looks like he's on to a winner. It's not that he is offering different solutions to his opponents: it's that he is on a different wavelength altogether. Mr Prodi desperately triedto persuade the Alitalia unions that the Air France-KLM takeover offer was the only solution, that money was running out, no further state support would be forthcoming and that soon the firm would go bust, with the loss more than 19,000 jobs.

Mr Berlusconi said the terms of Air France's bid for Alitalia were "not just unacceptable, but offensive", a reminder of "the French attitude of imposing themselves on others". Italy must remain in Italian hands, he said, the Italian investors would show up in a short while, and perhaps he himself could play a part in saving the carrier. That was the music they wanted to hear. The unions rejected Air France's offer; Air France walked away, and now Alitalia is weeks from the knacker's yard. Mr Berlusconi and his phantom investors are nowhere to be seen.

Mr Berlusconi appeals at the ballot box because his voters would like to be as rich as him and have homes and yachts around the world like him, and they would like to be able to go up to gorgeous showgirls such as Mara Carfagna, now an MP in his party, and say: "Take a look at her! I'd marry her if I weren't married already."

That was the remark that got him into hot water with Veronica last year, that and his pledge to the even more remarkable Aida Yespica, former Miss Amazonia that he'd "go with you anywhere".

But what makes the wife fume delights millions of Italian voters, and takes their minds off their troubles. People vote for Mr Berlusconi as a sort of surrogacy, a form of wish fulfilment, attacked by the irrational feeling that if they vote for him and he gets in, some of his magic will rub off on them.

Back in 2001, Mr Berlusconi packaged that particular hokum and sold it as his promise to bring back Italy's economic miracle. No miracle came. Three years later, voters had seen through him, and in mid-term elections his party Forza Italia lost four million votes, slumping from 11 million to seven million. Two years after that they threw him out, though in the end there was only a difference of 50,000 votes between the two coalitions.

But here he is again, aged 71, pacemaker going strong, permatan glowing, rug rethink holding together nicely, still smiling, still cracking outrageous jokes, some of which may be part of his party's pledges, some not.

One suggestion mooted this week was a month-long tax holiday for the whole population. "The idea would be to give to Italians, after all they suffered under Mr Prodi, a month without taxes: 'the month of freedom'," he told Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by his brother. Then he added: "We probably wouldn't be able to do it because it would cost too much but, as you can see, we don't lack imagination for solving problems."

This time, Mr Berlusconi is not even pretending a golden age is round the corner. It would be futile to try: Italy's growth will be the worst in the Eurozone this year at 0.3 per cent, the experts said, half the figure predicted by Mr Prodi's government. Italy's problems worsen every year: the growing disparity in earning power between rich and poor and north and south, for example; nearly 20 per cent of Italian families have to exist on less than €1,200 per month.

Other problems include: outdated infrastructure, a weak education system, an underqualified workforce, a rapidly ageing population, a fragmented political system, inefficient state bureaucracy, organised crime (Italy's biggest industry) a bizarrely inadequate legal system, huge public debt and low productivity.

Oh, and one more: thanks to the electoral reform passed by Mr Berlusconi, it is hugely difficult to obtain a majority in the Senate, even for a party or coalition with a healthy majority. That "reform", described by its inventor as "a load of rubbish", was Mr Berlusconi's parting gift to Mr Prodi last time round. But now that boomerang may come back and smack him in the face, depriving him, too, of a senate majority and making government all but impossible. Bring on the clowns!

Berlusconi in his own words

"The West will continue to conquer peoples, even if it means a confrontation with another civilisation, Islam, firmly entrenched where it was 1,400 years ago."

"Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile."

"Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries... superb girls."

"I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone."