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Berlusconi comeback would be a catastrophe

I reAD somewhere that Benito Mussolini is "cool" again in Italy.

BACK IN THE RACE: Comeback king Silvio Berlusconi could slip back into power after this weekend's general election in Italy. Picture: Reuters
BACK IN THE RACE: Comeback king Silvio Berlusconi could slip back into power after this weekend's general election in Italy. Picture: Reuters

Apparently, at the start of every year, Mussolini calendars appear in newsagents across the country and are eagerly sought after.

Then there was the recent case of a leading Italian businessman who suggested Forli Airport in Emilia Romagna, the region of northern Italy where the dictator was born, be renamed Mussolini Airport.

Certainly the wartime fascist leader's granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, still serves in parliament as part of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's political coalition.

Italy, it seems, has something of a track record when it comes to rehabilitating the reputations of its most notorious and controversial political leaders.

It would seem that if it's good enough for Il Duce it's good enough for Il Cavaliere (Berlusconi) as Italy counts down to this weekend's general election.

Of course, not everyone is happy at the prospect of Mr Berlusconi slipping back into power.

Yesterday, the German President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, made that much clear when he urged Italians not to back the scandal-ridden media tycoon at the ballot box.

"Silvio Berlusconi has already sent Italy into a tailspin with irresponsible behaviour in Government and personal escapades," Mr Schulz was quoted as saying in German daily Bild.

There is, of course, no love lost between the two politicians ever since Mr Berlusconi – in response to criticism from Mr Schulz – suggested the German would be well suited for the role of a Kapo in a film on Nazi concentration camps.

It was a stinging remark to say the least, given Kapo was an inmate assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labour gangs.

It would be all too easy to view Mr Schulz's latest dig at Mr Berlusconi as an act of political revenge were it not for the fact his concerns are shared by numerous other prominent European politicians as well as many ordinary Italians.

Yet, whatever one thinks of Mr Berlusconi, you have to hand it to him when it comes to dogged and utterly ruthless political campaigning.

Little more than two months ago, the centre-left, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, had an apparently unassailable lead of 10 points against a demoralised centre-right, which looked close to disintegration.

But in December a rejuvenated Mr Berlusconi stormed back into the race and began working the crowd with the kind of populist appeal of which he is a past master.

Casting himself as the people's champion against a heartless Europe hell bent on imposing economic austerity policies, he began to close the gap on his opponents.

In a publicity blitz that saw him utilise every component of his media empire, he rushed from political rallies to television studios, adopted a homeless puppy and ran a video before his rallies that was full of football clips and dancing girls.

Throughout this entire process there was the usual off-colour jokes and then, over the last few days, the campaigning weapon that had his opponents screaming outrage.

It came in the form of a letter in an official-looking envelope, headed "Important notice: reimbursement of IMU 2012". It was sent out to millions of Italians promising to reimburse payments already made under a much hated property tax brought in by recent ex-Prime Minister Mario Monti.

That the deluge of letters focused on households in Sicily, Veneto, Campania and Lombardy – all key regions which could decide the result of the election – was of course no coincidence.

It was, claimed many of Mr Berlusconi's election rivals, tantamount to "buying the votes of the Italian people with the money of the state".

Using such tactics, Mr Berlusconi has made substantial political headway in the election campaign of late.

That said, there is still a general feeling his pitch has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps Mr Berlusconi's opponents have less to fear about his political rehabilitation than they think.

Pollsters still believe the most likely outcome is a centre-left government headed by Mr Bersani and backed by Mr Monti.

The latest published polls before a legal blackout on February 9 showed the centre-left about five points ahead and analysts believe this still holds, with perhaps a slight decline in support.

Should this centre-left coalition fail to materialise, the most likely outcome is a grand coalition, one that would in all likelihood include Mr Berlusconi in some role – returning Il Cavaliere to European politics.

But we are not there yet. Public fury over record unemployment – especially among the young – tax hikes and economic pain, combined with a recent rash of high-level corruption cases has fanned support for two upstart political movements that make the outcome of this election still difficult to predict.

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, a group led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, and the Northern League – a group seeking greater autonomy for the country's north – are relative newcomers to Italian politics and if they slightly exceed expectations at the polls they may torpedo the expected outcome of a centre-left coalition.

A skilful internet user, Mr Grillo has been active on the hustings, touring Italy in a camper van, shouting himself hoarse with obscenity-laced insults at a discredited political class and winning roars of approval from large crowds.

The success of his campaign has led some analysts to say the 5-Star Movement could be the third biggest single party in this weekend's vote with around 20% support, ahead of Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL).

For so long now, Italy's problems have stemmed from far more than Mr Berlusconi's notorious peccadilloes and poor performance while in office as Prime Minister. As the eurozone's third biggest economy, it has been in its longest recession for 20 years.

Mr Schulz is right when he says there is much at stake in Italy's forthcoming election. He is right too in saying the fragile level of confidence built up by Mr Monti must not be forfeited.

But if some Italians have a lingering if inexplicable nostalgia for Mussolini, here's hoping a similar sentiment does not extend to Mr Berlusconi this weekend.

His permanent expulsion to the political wilderness is long overdue. Should he conjure up a comeback it would be catastrophic for Italy and Europe as a whole.

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