He's 76 and has half the magistrates of Italy after him. This may very well be Silvio Berlusconi's final act. But he's been campaigning like he'll be around for a while yet.
Charging through Italy, the master jester has put on his usual voluble vaudeville. He has promised to "get drunk" — in celebration — if his new nemesis Mario Monti crashes out of the chamber. When a left-leaning journalist needled him over his links to Giampaolo Tarantini, a Bari businessman alleged to have procured prostitutes for Berlusconi, Il Cav pulled out a piece of cardboard and hit him with it.
Occasionally menacing but mostly chortling, Berlusconi has been climbing the polls. He is miles ahead of incumbent Monti, the unelected senator, who is leading a centrist coalition to the vote. And he is not far behind Pier Luigi Bersani, the somewhat drab Democrat leading the centre-left to the urns.
And Berlusconi has set the tone for the other candidates. After nearly two decades of the Second Republic — Berlusconi-land — Italian elections are all about bread and circuses. Though this time, in the midst of the financial crisis, there is less bread on offer. Hence, the circuses are even more garish than usual.
Aside from Berlusconi, the big winner of the campaign has been Beppe Grillo. The snowy-maned comic, whose speciality is the piazza harangue, has been gaining and gaining in the final days of the election campaign.
"Since last week, polls for the Italian election haven't been published," says the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "But all the politicians and the newspapers seem sure that one political force is making a push for it, more than any other: the "Grillinis".
Grillo, who cannot stand for parliament due to a manslaughter conviction, is leading the Five Star Movement, an unpredictable populist party. It has few definite policies but is promising to clean up Italy's political world.
Now Grillo's speciality is the denunciation, well founded or not. Years before it emerged that Benito Craxi — a former Italian prime minister and Berlusconi's mastermind — was corrupt, Grillo said so.
And he was at it again last week. To quote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Last week, as the great and good of Italy praised Benedict's valiant departure, Grillo joked: 'Maybe the pope only resigned because the Monte di Paschi bribes were routed via the Vatican Bank and he's scared of being locked up in the Engelburg [the former papal prison].'"
That's a jab both at the Pope, unpopular in Italy, and the centre-left, whose politicians allegedly benefited from the financially troubled bank's largesse for years.
Benedict's resignation paused the campaign. It shifted Italians' attention from earth to heaven, at least for a week. Benedict's decision to quit, say some analysts, has reminded Italians that some leaders know when their time is up.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi seems timeless (though that might be all the Botox).
"He (Berlusconi) needs blanket coverage from the media to regain votes. Especially since, if the election were to be held today, he would lose according at the polls," political analyst Luigi Crespi told Italian financial site Wall Street Italia.
But Il Cav is not giving up, just yet. Over the past two months, Berlusconi has not limited himself to electoral stunts. He has also unveiled a big-spending economic plan. Once again, Berlusconi has signalled that his new government will boost Italians' purchasing power. He plans to reverse a housing tax implemented by Mario Monti's technocratic government.
Those kind of policies "frighten" the international financial markets, complains France's Le Figaro: "Il Cavaliere does not resile from any action, no matter how demagogic. Berlusconi's government had introduced the housing tax in 2011, defering its application until 2014. To save Italy from a fate similar to that of Greece, Monti had moved forward implementation of the tax until 2012."
And so does one of Berlusconi's other policies: a tax amnesty. This is certainly not the first time that Il Cav has let tax dodgers off the hook. But with debt at 120 per cent of GDP, Monti has been arguing that Italians cannot afford to indulge tax evaders. "He is buying the votes of Italians with the money that they should have paid (to the treasury) to fill the budget black holes created by his government," he says.
Like Grillo, Monti's centrist coalition has been gaining on the leaders, Berlusconi and Bersani, during the election campaign. Still, he remains stuck between 10-20 per cent. And so "il professore" has tried to get the gloves off. On Sunday, Monti demanded a televised debate with Berlusconi and Bersani.
"Do you really want to deny Italians the right to form impressions based on a direct confrontation between the candidates?," Monti implored in Corriera della Sera.
In fact, Monti is weighed down by his government's legacy of austerity and recession, notes Spain's El Imparcial. Italy has fallen into a protracted recession, the longest in two decades. Yet the centre-left has refrained from criticism of Monti over this. Indeed, complains El Imparcial, front runner Pier Luigi Bersani, has been saying little and waging an anti-campaign:
"Cowardly enough, Bersani seems most concerned with "not putting his foot in it" than in setting out his program, maybe because he is trying to preserve his margin for maneuver for when he has to negotiate a (coalition) pact."
Still, it is the garish outsiders who continue to fill the columns of the press in the final week of campaigning in Italy. And even dour Monti and Bersani have got into the electioneering. Monti, an economics professor, was photographed with an incontinent dog, says L'Espresso. "This could be the craziest election campaign on earth," laments the Italian weekly.
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