Silvio Berlusconi was greeted with cheers from adoring supporters as he appeared at one of his final rallied before the Italian election in four days’ time.
The four-time prime minister, 76, told a crowd of around 1,500 victory was at hand as he addressed the gathering at Milan’s exhibition centre on Monday night – following a similarly rapturous reception in Turin the night before. For at least 90 minutes he launched attacks on German chancellor Angela Merkel and outgoing technocrat prime minister Mario Monti.
He again slammed Mr Monti for his tax increases, and accused Mrs Merkel of damaging all of Europe with austerity measures.
Despite a sex scandal continuing to dog Mr Berlusconi and his regular off-colour jokes, many of his fans were women with no doubts about their hero’s ability to pull off yet another political victory against the odds.
Pollsters say that despite a fightback since entering the campaign in December, Mr Berlusconi was still four to five points behind the centre-left coalition when the last surveys were published ten days ago.
A Corriere della Sera poll yesterday showed the proportion of Italians undecided or tempted to abstain has declined from 51.5 per cent in December but remains at a significant 27.7 per cent less than a week before the vote on Sunday and Monday.
Italy bans the publication of polls of voting intentions two weeks before an election, but Mr Berlusconi told fans the tide had turned: “I must give you some good news. Very good indeed. We have caught them up and overtaken them,” the media mogul said. “I believe the election will bring many good surprises.”
He was preaching to the converted. “Our family always votes for Berlusconi: my husband, me and my children. Berlusconi is our only hope in life. How can you vote for anybody else?” said Giovannina Michelon, 74.
Another supporter, clerk Stella D’Antonio, 42, said: “Silvio is really nice. I vote for him because I still believe in him. He is a good man, a good prime minister, a good dad, a good grandfather. Why do we have to talk badly about him?”
Ms D’Antonio said she had been to parties where she had met Mr Berlusconi, who had a brief career as a singer. Asked about his affairs and alleged “bunga bunga” sex parties with starlets, she said: “It is women who throw themselves on him.”
Mr Berlusconi is on trial in Milan for having sex with an underage prostitute. Hearings are on hold until after the election.
Although his sex and fraud scandals have sapped support for his centre-right People of Freedom party, they have done nothing to undermine the faith of his most dedicated fans.
A lone heckler, who threw a paper dart bearing the words “You have ruined us”, was bustled out by marshals, pursued by indignant Berlusconi supporters yelling obscenities. The rally had all the trappings associated with Mr Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire and populist who has outshone his colourless opponents, centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and Mr Monti.
Before he took the stage, the audience watched videos of his life from childhood, including an interview with his late mother saying she had told him as a child he would become something big. They were shown segments about his media empire and matches won by his football team AC Milan, emphasising the rags to riches story his fans love. The Italian anthem was played as he climbed on stage, to chants of “Silvio, Silvio, Silvio”.
The rally was held with the Northern League, a key ally for Mr Berlusconi in winning seats. But League leader Roberto Maroni made only a short speech to an indifferent crowd.