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Berlusconi Remains the Wild Card in Italy Race

February 9th, 2013 World

ROME — One candidate promised to drop an unpopular new property tax and refund all prior payments in cash. Another called that proposal a “poisoned meatball,” disconnected from reality. A third suggested that Al Qaeda blow up the Italian Parliament — then backtracked — and the man generally considered the front-runner is campaigning on vague promises of stability, so has often been ignored.

With only two weeks to go before national elections, the Italian campaign has become a surreal spectacle in which a candidate many had given up for dead, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has surged. Although he is not expected ever to govern again, with his media savvy and pie-in-the-sky offers of tax refunds, Mr. Berlusconi now trails the front-runner, Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the Democratic Party, by about five or six points, according to a range of opinion polls published on Friday.

The polls found that the former comedian Beppe Grillo, who made the Qaeda quip as part of his antipolitical campaign, is close behind in third place, while the caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, who made the “poisoned meatball” remark as he stepped up attacks on Mr. Berlusconi in an awkward transition from technocrat to candidate, is taking up the rear with around 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote.

Most analysts predict that the center-left will win, but with not enough votes to govern without forming an alliance with Mr. Monti’s centrists. Yet in a complex political landscape — and with significant policy differences between Mr. Monti and Mr. Bersani, who have been criticizing each other in their campaigns — nothing is a given, and the political uncertainty weighs on financial markets.

Some compare the election to a power struggle on a corporate board. “Mr. Berlusconi knows he can’t govern, but wants a strong seat at the table,” said Marco Damilano, a political reporter for L’Espresso, a weekly. The Democratic Party will have the majority of seats but will not be able to govern without making accords, he said, adding that “Monti wants the golden share,” in which his few seats count for a lot.

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

Mr. Monti lacks a strong party and has hit Italians with unpopular taxes, and centrists who might lean left are concerned that Mr. Bersani would be weak on the flagging economy. On top of that, Mr. Berlusconi, whose center-right People of Liberty is more a charismatic movement than a party, has true loyalists who do not know where else to turn.

“Berlusconi is politically dead, but his electorate is still there and it is looking for a new leader, and there isn’t one,” said Massimo Franco, a political columnist for the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. “So it’s a sort of a nostalgic operation.”

In an auditorium near the Vatican, Mr. Berlusconi was greeted Thursday by rows of adoring fans, most of them retirees. “Ah,” he said. “It reminds me of the good old days.” Joking about his age, the 76-year-old former premier 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 unreconstructed, cold-war Communists; magistrates as politically motivated; the euro and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany as harming Italy; and Mr. Monti as a leader beholden to foreign interests who did nothing but raise taxes.

His supporters were mostly buying it. “Even if he doesn’t refund us the property tax, at least he’ll take it away,” said Francesca Cipriani, 70, a retiree, as she cheered Mr. Berlusconi.

“My house is worth 20 percent less,” Nicola Manichelli, 75, a retired taxi driver, chimed in.

Marcello Sorgi, a columnist for the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa, said: “Berlusconi voters fear that Monti will raise taxes, and that under Berlusconi that won’t happen. It’s not at all true, but Berlusconi’s propaganda works with his electorate.”

“His electorate still has a messianic, religious rapport with him,” Mr. Sorgi added.“Berlusconi is considered a kind of guru.”

Not so with Mr. Monti, who is beloved in Brussels, Berlin and Washington, but has been less popular with Italian voters. As he learns to campaign, Mr. Monti, an economist with no previous political experience, has sought the services of the political consulting firm AKPD Message and Media, whose co-founder, David Axelrod, President Obama’s key political strategist, visited Mr. Monti in Rome last month.

Mr. Monti, who is trying to capture the civic-minded centrists from both right and left who once voted for the centrist Christian Democrats before the party disbanded in a corruption scandal in the early 1990s, also opened a Facebook page. He uses it to post folksy musings that some critics say are undermining the authority of the slyly ironic but hardly showmanlike candidate instead of humanizing him.

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

Mr. Bersani, a longtime party veteran and former economic growth minister, speaks more to the old guard of the 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 on Thursday to party loyalists, including municipal workers and frustrated university adjunct teachers, Mr. Bersani called attention to youth unemployment and the disconnect between the real economy and financial markets, and called for economic stimulation to help more people have steady jobs. “Europe isn’t just the fiscal compact,” he said.

Both Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Bersani appear to speak more to their own constituencies than to the nation as a whole, long a characteristic of Italian politics. Faced with a political class that seems stuck in the past, Mr. Grillo and his antipolitical Five Star Movement have been gaining ground in the polls, campaigning in piazzas across Italy.