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Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2010-03-30

He was supposed to suffer the fate that so often befalls incumbents half-way through their term, but Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi has pulled off another remarkable win in regional polls. Italian politics expert Professor Paolo Bellucci explains why.

After a ghastly few months marked by sex scandals, embarrassing campaign blunders and an assault during a rally in Milan, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was expected to suffer the same fate as French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this month in regional elections coming just short of mid-term. Instead, Italy’s flamboyant premier pulled off yet another surprise victory, wresting control of the key regions of Piedmont and Lazio (Rome) from the left.

Professor Paolo Bellucci, who heads the Centre for the Study of Political Change (CIRCaP) at Siena University, explains why Italians still see the “Cavaliere” as the best man for the job.

FRANCE 24: Voters in France have recently punished the centre-right government in regional polls widely portrayed as mid-term elections, and Italian voters were expected to do as much. How do we explain such a different outcome?

PAOLO BELLUCCI: We were all expecting a decline for the government, but not just yet. Unlike in France, we haven’t quite reached the half-way mark here. The government still enjoys an approval rate of 44 percent, which is fairly high considering the times. However, support for the centre-right did go down relative to the 2008 general election, particularly for Berlusconi’s own People of Freedom party (PDL). The regional polls can be read in two ways: in electoral terms, Berlusconi’s performance is mediocre (he only took Piedmont and Lazio by a whisker), but in political terms, it’s a triumph.

F24: What is Silvio Berlusconi’s recipe for success?

P.B.: In terms of policies, Berlusconi has found a winning formula that has made him virtually unassailable. On the one hand, you have the hard line on immigration and security, embodied by his key ally, the Northern League. On the other, you have the generous fiscal policy, associated with the PDL and its flagship “fiscal shield” [a cap on tax payments designed to encourage tax dodgers to declare their earnings and assets in return for exemption for prosecution, approved in 2009]. The combination of these is exactly what the vast majority of Italians are looking for.

F24: The prime minister has had a rough time of late, to say the least. Is his personal appeal still intact?

P.B.: A majority of Italians still have faith in Berlusconi. His stance on taxes and immigration is reassuring and he still enjoys an aura of success. He is both a galvanising and a polarising figure. He is loved and abhorred possibly in equal measure, but everything revolves around him. Nor do the repeated scandals concerning his private life and cases of alleged corruption appear to have affected him. Few Italians would describe Berlusconi as an honest man, but they do think he is more competent and enterprising than his rivals.

F24: Is Italy’s media tycoon giving the opposition a fair game?

P.B.: Berlusconi’s grip on the media has a determining impact. He has managed to keep the opposition out of television screens, while becoming a ubiquitous presence on the news and on political shows. The visibility creates a positive frame for voters who are undecided or who are scarcely interested in politics. His relative lack of control over the press matters little. We mustn’t forget that 80 percent of Italians keep abreast of political news via TV, and only 20 percent via newspapers.


Date created : 2010-03-30


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