Faithful flock to hear Silvio the superstar

ELECTION DIARY

The most eager to appear in front of the camera in this campaign has been Mr TV himself, Silvio Berlusconi. Of seven appointments he had one day this week, five were appearances on television channels, one was a pounds 600-a-plate fund-raising dinner, and the last was an encounter with the women's caucus of his party, Forza Italia. Not once during the campaign has he held a public meeting; every one of his appearances has been in front of a hand-picked audience of faithful supporters.

Evidently, his advisers think it would be bad for his image to be seen under pressure from hecklers. To judge by the kind of people who support him, though, one wonders how much good it can do him to be seen among his own kind. The women's caucus meeting was filled with smart, over-perfumed ladies who spent most of the time ignoring the speeches and talking into their mobile phones.

The speakers tried very hard to be cutting about the elections and the centre-left opposition, but did not quite manage. "The real election campaign begins when the polls close!" was one less than successful slogan.

None of this mattered, though; the only thing that interested most people was the arrival of Silvio the superstar. Too bad that "our great president, a great man who inspires us and fills us with joy every time he speaks" turned up more than three hours late to his own meeting.

Mr Berlusconi eventually arrived, breathless from his latest television interview, in a theatre delirious with the aroma of Chanel and sweat. He stayed only half an hour before dashing off to his fund-raiser, where the dessert trolley was threatening to disappear back into the kitchen. Far from objecting to his lateness, the crowd seemed positively thrilled at their leader's overpacked programme. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he asked an eight-year-old boy called Matteo. "Silvio Berlusconi," came the response. Only Mr Berlusconi's billions can buy that kind of publicity.

The centre-left has been up to some strange tricks, too, with one-time card-carrying Communists frequenting the gilded drawing-rooms of the aristocracy. The two left-wing candidates for central Rome, Walter Veltroni and Tana de Zulueta, both of them well-versed in the art of social charm, were hobnobbing with Contessa Stefania Aldrovandini and her friends at Palazzo Taverna last week. Two nights ago, the whole coalition was invited for champagne and canapes on the terraces of Palazzo Pecci-Blunt overlooking the Capitoline Hill - an occasion explained by the fact that Countess Donatella Pecci-Blunt is bosom pals with the wife of the outgoing Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini.

Apparently the aristocrats are fascinated by these new friends of theirs, finding them less vulgar than the parvenu Mr Berlusconi. Once the blue- bloods would have held cocktail parties to help fight the left; their changing allegiances neatly illustrate just how topsy-turvy Italian politics has become.

Of course, at least part of the centre-left isn't left-wing at all. Mr Dini is a free-market conservative, and his candidate for the Senate in the Sorrento peninsula, Mario D'Urso, is a former president of Lehman Brothers, the merchant bank. The Anglophile Mr D'Urso is very much the upper-class social butterfly, conducting his campaign like a never-ending garden party, driving off for tea with the British ambassador one minute and taking his private speedboat to Capri the next ("He is one of the few people who can open Gianni Agnelli's fridge any time he likes," one supporter noted.)

When I met him, he was wearing what only the truly well-connected can get away with on formal occasions: a salmon pink golf shirt emblazoned with a campaign slogan beneath a brown tweed jacket. When I told him I had to go because I hadn't been invited to a dinner being given in honour of the visiting Mr Veltroni, he retorted: "It is my dinner, and I invite you."

I was put on my guard, though: using the pretext of giving me his private phone number, Mr D'Urso neatly filched my only pen and put it into his pocket. He gave it back to me, but only at the end of the evening: a subtle warning not to divulge too much of what I had just seen and heard.

Such immaculate command of the situation is not something Mr D'Urso shares with the right-wing candidate, Carlo Taormina, who spent last Sunday morning doing the rounds of churches in his Rome constituency. Arriving at Piazza Bologna, home to Rome University and a well-known neo-Fascist stronghold, he confidently marched up to the church of Sant'Ippolito with a handful of campaign workers and began leafleting the congregation. Unluckily for him, he had picked the one left-wing parish in the area and he was promptly ejected from the premises. It's nothing personal," explained the priest, Ettore Parretti, "but here we help the poor, tramps and immigrants whose most frequent complaints are about harassment from people like you."

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