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.

Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Soaking up the spotlight: Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his People of Freedom coalition have rebounded after a 2006 defeat.

You'd never know he's a politician – let alone a former prime minister.

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.

Other aspects of Italian society are incongruent with Western norms, as well. Nearly 100 laborers a month are killed on the job in Italy, making its worker fatality rate nearly 10 times higher than Britain's and more than double that of France, according to a 2005 report by the International Labor Organization.

Naples's sidewalks have been overridden by trash in the last year, in an unsightly example of ineffective politicians. The debt-ridden, inefficient public sector, including the airline Alitalia, still needs to undergo major privatizations. Then, as the rubbish fiasco in Naples showed – the mafia controls much of the trash removal business – there are the huge economic interests of the mafia address. According to Confesercenti, a major business association, the mafia represents the biggest segment of the Italian economy, accounting for 7 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Veltroni has promised to "annihilate" organized crime if he becomes prime minister. Berlusconi, though having been the subject of numerous investigations of criminal ties, has also spoken out firmly – and even proposed moving his government to Naples to get a grip on the Camorra and the trash situation.

Italian voters won't be checking a box for Veltroni or Berlusconi, per se. Instead, the party that receives the most votes in both houses of parliament puts forward a prime minister.

The electoral system was introduced by the Berlusconi government in late 2005 and confuses voters and observers alike. By giving a "majority" bonus to the party or coalition of parties that wins the most votes nationally in the lower house, but by assigning a similar bonus in the upper house on a regional basis, the electoral system raises the possibility of a hung parliament, or a very slim majority. That's what happened to Romano Prodi in 2006, which eventually led to the collapse of his government in January.

The 'Obama' of Italy

Even before Mr. Prodi's government collapsed, Veltroni – who had been a Communist and Prodi's left-hand man in his previous 1996-98 government, became the leader of the Democratic Party – a new political force meant to mobilize the center-left electorate, and boldly split from the parties on the far left.

But what was initially seen as an alternative hasn't worked with many voters on the left. True, Veltroni managed to charm some and bring his party only to between five and nine percentage points behind Berlusconi's People of Liberty (from an initial 13 point difference) by the time the preelection ban on opinion polling began nearly two weeks ago.

However, according to Nando Pagnoncelli, one of Italy's leading pollsters, one of Veltroni's main handicaps is to have candidates in his party that belong to the Prodi government and do not represent the change he had initially promised. On the other hand, says Mr. Pagnoncelli, Berlusconi is running for the fifth time and is not a new force either, but he seems to have a stronger support base.

But it's not a done deal for Berlusconi. With one-third of Italy's 47 million voters still undecided, and a complex electoral system, it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to build a strong majority in both houses, and how long it will last.

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