In Italian elections, Berlusconi's charisma is winning
Voters, who head to the polls Sunday, see the flamboyant former leader as the man to lift Italy out of its malaise.
You'd never know he's a politician – let alone a former prime minister.Skip to next paragraph
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Silvio Berlusconi instead shows all the trappings of a rock star at his rallies. Teenage crowds scream his name, young women dance with him on stage, and he ends his performance by sending hugs and kisses to everyone in his adoring audience – which is growing.
Facing a depressed economy and the still-pervasive grip of mafia groups, voters are looking to him as the man to lift Italy out of its malaise.
"I call it the Zorro syndrome," says Il Corriere della Sera columnist Beppe Severgnini, referring to the fictional outlaw hero who defended the people and their land against unjust authorities. "Every 10 years or so, Italians need someone to rescue them. First it was Mussolini, then the Americans, then the European Union, then the anticorruption judges. And then came Berlusconi."
With his celebrity-style approach and magnetic appeal, Mr. Berlusconi has conditioned Italian politics since entering the field in 1994. Charisma, more than sound policy, has become the essential ingredient for winning public support.
Already elected twice, the wealthy media magnate and his center-right People of Freedom alliance are favored to win on Sunday despite a string of pending corruption charges. Not even the Obama of Italy – Walter Veltroni, a center-left former mayor of Rome who adopted the US candidate's "Yes We Can!" motto and is nearly 20 years Berlusconi's junior – has been able to slow the billionaire's momentum.
"Berlusconi is someone who has worked on TV and knows how to play the celebrity game. He also has enough money to wear what he wants and always look young and have women around him to attract young voters," says Alexander Stille, who harshly critiqued Berlusconi's leadership in his acclaimed book, "The Sack of Rome." "The interests he represents are so powerful – they mix entertainment, sports, television, and politics – that until Italians don't figure out this conflict of interest, he can come back again and again."
What Italians hope he can fix
Although Veltroni's and Berlusconi's manifestos and policies are not radically different, Berlusconi is considered the businessman who can save Italy, says Mr. Severgnini.
There are many problems that Italians would like fixed: huge public debt, low growth, and declining economic competitiveness, to mention a few. In 2007, for example, public debt was at 104 percent of annual gross domestic product – compared with an average 60 percent for other EU countries. That means that the state has to pay up to €70 billion ($110 billion) annually in interest – at a yearly cost of €1,150 euros ($1,800) per taxpayer.