Friday, 11 April 2008

11 April 2008

MILAN: The former – and perhaps future – Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is known to voters here as Il Cavaliere. It means The Knight, and the image it conjures up is of a knight on a white charger racing to rescue a damsel in distress.

That damsel is Italy, which is in dire economic straits and once again looking for a saviour able to work miracles. Is Silvio Berlusconi that man? In the elections on Sunday and Monday, Italian voters will have a chance to decide. And I’m here to try to find out what it is about a man who is often described overseas (and not only overseas) in terms that portray him as little more than a corrupt buffoon that attracts substantial numbers of Italian voters.

Milan, where I’ve been for the past of couple of days, is the Berlusconi homeland. This is where he’s from, and this is where his support is strongest. “He’s one of us,” people here have been telling me. Yes, he’s had a hair transplant; yes, he’s had cosmetic surgery; and yes, at the age of 71 he still has an eye for pretty girls which has landed him in trouble with his wife. But – and this is much more important than any of the above – he is mega-rich, and he sells himself as the walking embodiment of the Italian dream. I can have the yachts, and the girls, and the glamour, he says – and so can you.

Silvio Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, and according to Forbes magazine, the 51st richest man in the world. He made his billions in property, the media, advertising, and insurance. He also owns one of Europe’s top football clubs, AC Milan. If a multi-billionaire can have the common touch, that man is Berlusconi.

I was here in Italy when he was first elected 14 years ago. Then, he was a fresh face in politics, offering a new start after an entire political class had been wiped out in a slew of corruption scandals. But Mr Berlusconi himself has gone on trial on at least six occasions accused of embezzlement, tax fraud, false accounting and attempting to bribe a judge. He has always denied any wrongdoing and has never been convicted.

Italian politics make Byzantium look like a children’s game. There are 177 parties registered to stand in the elections – no fewer than 10 were in the rickety left-of-centre coalition government headed by Romano Prodi which collapsed after less than two years in office. Mr Berlusconi’s party which used to be Forza Italia is now the People of Freedom. The left-of-centre party headed by the former mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni is called the Democratic Party. It has also been known as the Party of the Left, the Democratic Left, the Oak Tree and the Union. But I sense that you’re losing the will to live, so I’ll stop.

When I lived here back in the 1970s, the average length of a government’s life was eight months. Silvio Berlusconi lasted five years before narrowly losing in 2006. That alone makes him something special. But so too does his straight-forward way with voters: when a young woman asked him how he would suggest she could get on in life, he replied to the effect that she should find herself a rich husband – someone like his son, perhaps.

The opinion polls have been suggesting that Berlusconi will emerge the winner on Monday. But if it’s by only a narrow margin, he may be forced to go into a “grand coalition” with at least some of the parties of the centre-left. The trouble is that Italy needs radical reforms in both industrial and welfare policy – it is already becoming known as the “sick man” of Europe, and in economic terms has now fallen behind Spain, something that deeply offends Italian national pride.

The country that brought you some of Europe’s giants of the arts -- Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Verdi, Puccini, Dante and many, many more – is now losing its way and unsure of where it should be heading. This weekend, Italian voters have a chance to point the way forward. I’ll be on air tonight, Friday, and again on Monday, when I’ll be in Rome as the first results come in. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

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