The mystery of Berlusconi's silent but resilient support
There are fewer of them and they are ever harder to find, but as Italy's recent election has shown, Silvio Berlusconi's supporters are alive and kicking.
As Italy went to the polls on Sunday at the start of a two-day general election, the centre-left candidate for prime minister, Pier Luigi Bersani, confidently said, “victory will be ours, this is not 2006.”
Unlike Romano Prodi's Pyrrhic – and short-lived – victory seven years ago, Bersani implied, his success would be a decisive one.
He was right, in part. This election wasn't like 2006. It was worse.
By Monday evening, the left had scraped to victory by only the thinnest of margins (124,000 thousands votes) over a resurgent Silvio Berlusconi, and was a whopping 40 seats short of a majority in the Senate.
His dreams of a stable, centre-left government in tatters, Bersani was left to ponder yet another spectacular comeback by the man every Italian pundit had written off.
A “stroke of genius”
Bersani's desperate situation, of course, is mostly a consequence of the surge in support for comedian Beppe Grillo, whose 5-Star Movement claimed a staggering 25% of the vote and 164 seats in parliament (between the two chambers).
But on Monday evening there was no denying the obvious fact that the 17-point lead Bersani enjoyed over Berlusconi's coalition at the start of the campaign had been completely wiped out.
How did the Cavaliere do it? With a relentless and hugely effective round of campaigning that combined his unrivalled media power with a handful of carefully selected proposals.
“Within days of entering the race, he had placed the campaign firmly on his own turf by promising to scrap a reviled property tax and reimburse Italians for the amount paid last year,” said Paolo Bellucci, a professor of contemporary politics at the University of Siena, on the eve of the vote.
To the sceptics, Berlusconi said new taxes on gambling and a deal to repatriate some of the money held by Italians in Swiss bank accounts would compensate for the shortfall in state revenue.
It was a reckless and scarcely believable move, but one that even some of his rivals described as a “stroke of genius”.
Never mind the fact that Italy was in no position to afford such reimbursements, that Switzerland made it clear it would take years to negotiate a deal, or indeed that Berlusconi's promise to take the money from his own companies should state funds not suffice essentially boiled down to buying people's votes.
Never mind the repeated trials (including a conviction for tax fraud last October), the laws passed to protect himself and his businesses (including the decriminalisation of false accounting), and the fact that he had become something of a joke around the world – except perhaps in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
And never mind the lurid campaign jokes about how often a girl would "come", the bunga bunga scandals, or the fact that he personally intervened in 2011 to have a 17-year-old prostitute released from custody (fearing she would talk about her relationship with him) and then claimed he thought she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak.
Almost a quarter of Italian voters still chose his party, and nearly a third backed his coalition.
Silent, invisible voters
True enough, Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party polled well below the 37% it got in 2008, the year of his last electoral triumph.
But Italy's political landscape has changed dramatically since then, with Grillo's movement taking votes from mainstream parties on the right and the left.
When Berlusconi announced his return to politics last December, at the age of 76, his party, crippled by corruption scandals and defections, was credited with a mere 12% of voter intentions.
His fierce campaigning soon brought the PDL back into contention, but when secret polls released just days before the vote suggested his coalition might finish third behind Grillo's party, even the Cavaliere appeared to lose heart.
Then came the first exit polls at 3pm on Monday, pointing to a 6-point gap between Bersani's coalition and the centre-right, only for the actual vote count to prove the exit polls – and every survey before that – wrong.
How could everyone's predictions have been so misplaced? How could the gap between the two coalitions have narrowed so dramatically, just as it did in 2006?
Speaking on Tuesday on Rai 3, Paolo Mieli, the former director of the Stampa and Corriere della Sera newspapers, suggested that “many people simply don't say they voted for Berlusconi, or even Grillo”.
The same day, journalist Pierangelo Battista wrote in the Corriere, Italy's best-selling daily, that PDL voters “lied to the polling institutes because to declare oneself a Berlusconi voter is not a sign of finesse, it exposes one to ridicule”.
These silent, invisible voters are indeed hard to come by.
While the country is awash with posters of Berlusconi, his supporters are nowhere to be found.
In the run-up to the election, FRANCE 24 spoke to numerous people from a variety of backgrounds, but never met an avowed Berlusconi voter (barring a handful at a meeting of his PDL party).
Not in Lombardy (a Berlusconi stronghold), nor in Tuscany (a bastion of the left), nor in Rome (a “swing” city).
Many laughed at the idea, claiming, like 52-year-old Gabriele Agostini in the small Lombard village of Mercallo, that “no one votes for him anymore”.
In the nearby town of Varese, a bastion of the right, many squirmed at the mere sound of his name, including several Northern League activists who openly resented their party's alliance with the Cavaliere.
The 'fiscal question'
Yet the alliance proved sturdy in Lombardy, where Berlusconi's coalition thrashed the centre-left, defying forecasts of a close battle in Italy's richest and most populous region.
“Far from the 'Italian Ohio' analysts had spoken of, Lombardy proved to be the 'Italian Texas', an impregnable fortress of the right,” wrote Curzio Maltese on Wednesday in the centre-left daily, La Repubblica.
Analysing the left's defeat in the Milan region, Maltese said Bersani's party had once again underestimated the importance of the “fiscal question”, a mistake Berlusconi was never likely to make.
Whereas in the more traditional, backward south of Italy Berlusconi can still count on the support of many housewives glued to his televisions and deeply suspicious of the left, in the north the core of his support comes from the small and medium-sized business that have but one thing in mind: taxes.
“Berlusconi might cause every possible disaster, but he speaks the language and knows the interests of his 'social bloc',” said the Corriere's Agostini.
This bloc includes both those who don't pay their taxes and many who do but can no longer cope.
Two weeks ago, when the head of the Lombard aerospace giant Finmeccanica was arrested for bribing Indian officials to secure a giant helicopter contract, Berlusconi alone of all politicians blamed the magistrates for hurting Italian jobs. “Sometimes you simply cannot sell anything without a bribe,” he remarked.
As the locals would say, Berlusconi speaks “alla pancia” (or to the stomach) of Italians. “He knows their weak spots, their fear of discipline, of the state, of losing their homes, of being caught with their hands in the till,” said Professor Maurizio Cotta of the University of Siena.
Until the left finds a way to talk to these businesses burdened by taxes and indifferent to the state of public finances or what Germany's Angela Merkel might have to say about Italian politics, they will belong to Berlusconi, however wild his promises.
“The world that chose Berlusconi through all these years hasn't simply been swallowed by a black hole,” wroste Agostini in the Corriere. “The media didn't see it. The bubble in which opinion makers live did not see it. But the centre-right was still alive in the country. Devastated and in poor shape, but alive. With its language, its interests and its anthropology that left-wing snobs have relentlessly mocked, thereby racking up the most depressing succession of setbacks in Italian history.”