Berlusconi bites back ahead of Italy’s elections

ONE candidate promised to drop an unpopular new property tax and refund in cash all prior payments. Another called that plan a “poisoned meatball,” unrelated to reality.

A third suggested al-Qaeda blow up the parliament – then backtracked – and the man considered the front-runner is campaigning on vague promises of stability, so has been shunned.

With only two weeks to go before Italy’s general election, the campaign has become a surreal spectacle in which a candidate many had given up for dead, four-times former premier Silvio Berlusconi, has bounced back.

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Although he is not expected ever to govern again, with his media savvy and pie-in-the-sky offers of tax refunds, Berlusconi now trails the frontrunner, Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the Democratic Party, by only five or six points, according to a range of polls last week.

Yesterday, Berlusconi revealed he had revived an amnesty plan on unpaid taxes and building permit violations as he tries to gain ground. The pledge follows his promise to scrap a hated housing tax imposed by the technocrat government of the outgoing ­premier Mario Monti and reimburse last year’s payments.

The polls show former comedian Beppe Grillo, who made the al-Qaeda quip as part of his anti-politics campaign, is in third place, while Monti, who made the “poisoned meatball” remark as he stepped up attacks on Berlusconi in an awkward transition from technocrat to candidate, trails the pack with around 10-15 per cent of the vote.

Most analysts predict that the centre-left will win but with too few seats to govern without forming an alliance with Monti’s centrists.

Many outsiders marvel at Berlusconi’s survival skills, particularly since it was he who dragged down Italy’s finances and international standing to the point that Monti was brought in in November 2011 to lead an emergency technocratic government that lasted a year. But a good part of Berlusconi’s success has to do with the weakness of the competition.

Monti lacks a strong party and has hit Italians with unpopular taxes, and centrists who might lean Left are concerned that Bersani would be weak on the flagging economy.

In an auditorium near the Vatican, Berlusconi was greeted last Thursday by rows of fans, most of them pensioners. “Ah,” he said. “It reminds me of the good old days.” Joking about his age, the 76-year-old added: “I looked at myself in the mirror and saw someone who didn’t look like me. They don’t make mirrors the way they used to.”

In a two-hour off-the-cuff speech, he returned to familiar themes: depicting the Left as old guard Communists; magistrates as political agents; the euro and chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany as harming Italy; and Monti as a leader in hock to foreign interests who did nothing but increase taxes.

His supporters seem to swallow it. “Even if he doesn’t refund us the property tax, at least he’ll take it away,” said Francesca Cipriani, 70, as she cheered Berlusconi. “My house is worth 20 per cent less,” Nicola Manichelli, 75, a retired taxi driver, chimed in.

Yet Monti is beloved in Brussels, Berlin and Washington, but has been less popular with Italian voters. As he learns to campaign, Monti, an economist with no previous political experience, has sought the services of the political consultants AKPD Message and Media, whose co-founder, ­David Axelrod, US president Barack Obama’s key political strategist, visited Monti in Rome last month.

Monti, who is trying to capture civic-minded centrists of both Right and Left who once voted for the centrist Christian Democrats before it disbanded in a corruption scandal in the early 1990s, also opened a Face­book page.

He uses it to post folksy musings that critics say undermine the authority of the slyly ironic but hardly showmanlike candidate instead of humanising him.

Last week, an interviewer presented Monti with a puppy on live TV, days after Berlusconi had appeared with one. “This is a mean blackmail,” Monti said with a smile, before stroking the pup and saying, “Feel how soft it is.”

Bersani, a party veteran and former economic minister, speaks more to the old Italian Left. He defeated Matteo ­Renzi, the charismatic 38-year-old mayor of Florence, in a rare party primary and has been running on the slogan “A Just Italy,” a message aimed at reassuring voters but which may not inspire them.

In a half-hour speech last Thursday to party loyalists, including council workers and frustrated part-time university teachers, Bersani highlighted youth unemployment and the gulf between the real economy and financial markets, and called for a stimulus to help more people have steady jobs. “Europe isn’t just the fiscal compact,” he said.

Both Berlusconi and Bersani appear to speak more to their own constituencies than to Italy as a whole, long a characteristic of its politics.

Faced with a political class that seems stuck in Italy’s distant past, Grillo the comedian and his anti-political Five Star Movement have been gaining ground in the polls, campaigning in piazzas across the land.