The sudden collapse of Romano Prodi's coalition left parties scrambling to prepare a political platform for the ensuing campaign. In a battle that has more to do with personalities than policies, Silvio Berlusconi is a unique contender.
On the eve of the 2001 general election, Italy's most widely respected post-war journalist Indro Montanelli urged Italian voters to cast their ballot in favour of Silvio Berlusconi. The explanation he advanced, however, was of a peculiar kind. "Berlusconi is a disease that can only be cured through vaccination," he famously argued, "through a healthy injection of Berlusconi in the prime minister's seat, Berlusconi in the president's seat, Berlusconi in the pope's seat or wherever else he may want. Only after that will we be immune."
Berlusconi did go on to win that election, and though he narrowly lost to old foe Romano Prodi five years later, he is now back as the right's leading candidate for the fifth consecutive time.
Coming from no left-winger, Montanelli's statement reveals just how controversial Italy's most talked-about politician since Benito Mussolini has been over the past two decades. Despite frequent allegations of using his political clout to advance his business interests, Italy's richest man is also the country's most successful post-war leader.
Despite leading an unwieldy coalition with post-fascists and Northern League separatists, Berlusconi became the only prime minister so far to have served through a full 5-year legislature between 2001 and 2006; no small achievement in a country that has changed government 61 times in the last 63 years.
A bulwark for liberty?
With opinion polls suggesting "Il Cavaliere" will return to power for a third time, his promises of lower taxes, a less encroaching state and restored pride in the Italian nation still strike a chord among voters. However, Berlusconi's famous charm has proved less appealing abroad, where media and politicians alike have often criticised his control over Italy's press and television networks, as well as his regular onslaughts targeting the judiciary. The highly respected British weekly The Economist, for one, has repeatedly urged Italian voters to ditch the controversial media mogul.
Since his prodigious entry into politics in 1994, Berlusconi has almost single-handedly established and presided over a series of coalitions known as the Pole of Liberty, the House of Liberty and, now, the People of Liberty. Yet, to many, he is anything but a liberal. As Natalia Aspesi of the centre-left daily La Repubblica told FRANCE 24, Berlusconi's "true role would be that of an absolute monarch."
In recent years, the centre-right leader has survived countless trials for corruption, though a number of charges were simply quashed following controversial legislation introduced by his own government, including the notorious decision to decriminalise accounting fraud, approved by parliament in 2002 amid riotous scenes.
A mature and sobre Silvio?
At the age of 72, "Berlusconi comes across as a more mature and slightly more moderate politician than in the past," suggested Italy expert Marc Lazar, professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24. This time round, Il Cavaliere has refrained from making too many promises, warning instead of hard times ahead.
Having initially adhered to President Giorgio Napolitano's plea for a sobre campaign, Berlusconi has more recently renewed his trademark theatrics. When asked by a female graduate about his policies to help young adults, he notoriously suggested she might "use her smile to marry his son or another millionaire." A few days later, he took a jab at his favourite scapegoat, the judiciary, which he routinely labels the "Red (Communist) Robes". This time, he suggested inquiring into magistrates' "mental health." Unsurprisingly, he has dubbed his centre left rival Walter Veltroni a "recycled communist."
Date created : 2008-04-10