Berlusconi fighting to hold on to reins, political career


ROME -- He smiled down at the adoring crowd, flashing a row of teeth so white they could blind. As his fans chanted his name, waving red-and-green flags, Silvio Berlusconi demanded they follow him "across the river to freedom."

They sang "Forza, Italia," or "Go, Italy," the name of his party, and jeered and hissed every time he mentioned the left-leaning opposition.

"People would be masochistic not to vote for us," he said.

And so Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, wrapped up one of his final campaign rallies at the Rome fairgrounds.

But around the corner, Tiziana Lepreso was not impressed. A 39-year-old supermarket checkout clerk, Lepreso has seen her buying power plummet and her benefits slashed.

"Everyone expected so much from Berlusconi," Lepreso said. "It didn't work."

Today and tomorrow, Italians will vote in a national election that has Berlusconi, 69, fighting to keep his political career alive.

More than crucial domestic issues, the election is about Berlusconi, a billionaire tycoon and the longest-serving prime minister in post-World War II Italy, whose ability to run the country is increasingly being called into question.

Campaign rhetoric has been strident. Berlusconi, who is Italy's richest man, regularly boasts of his friendship with President Bush, and he is attempting to marshal the public's fears by painting the opposition as dangerous Communists who would raise taxes and open the floodgates to Muslim immigrants.

His opponent, Romano Prodi, 66, a professorial economist and former president of the European Commission, portrays Berlusconi as an unmitigated disaster who has single-handedly run Italy's stagnant economy into the ground.

Berlusconi leads a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties that has governed for the last five years, while Prodi's disparate center-left coalition includes parties ranging from Catholics to Communists.

Given Berlusconi's charm, braggadocio, billions of dollars and control of most media, he ought to have the election in the bag. Instead, Prodi, a former prime minister, has been slightly ahead in polls despite a rather passionless campaign.

Berlusconi's once-endearing antics "have worn thin," said Sergio Romano, a prominent political analyst. "He will do anything to get a vote. But by now, some of his comments are such obvious exaggerations that the people are getting tired. There is real wear and tear."

Italians who have observed Berlusconi ever since he burst into national politics 12 years ago note that his campaign has become faintly anarchic. He has made statements wild even by his standards: Trying to cast aspersions on his leftist opponents, he told voters that Chinese Communists used to boil babies and use them as fertilizer.

He is bickering with his natural allies, including once-loyal industrialists who got rich alongside him. Two Cabinet ministers have had to resign in disgrace in recent weeks, and he was remarkably unprepared for a television debate.

In an incident that Italians are still talking about, he stormed off the set of a live TV interview with one of the country's best-known journalists, incensed by her persistent questioning.

But Berlusconi says he remains confident of victory. And, in fact, pollsters caution that the race is very close.

The prime minister should benefit from the fact that he and his associates own or control most of Italy's broadcast media, the most influential form of communication in the country.

Still, Italy's economic malaise and an increasingly squeezed middle class continue to weight Berlusconi down. Most Italians feel less well-off than they did five years ago, polls indicate.

Italy registered no economic growth last year and has been running below the average for Europe for 13 of the last 14 years. Growth has averaged less than 1 percent annually during Berlusconi's five years in power.

Most of Berlusconi's exchanges with Prodi have been vitriolic. The day after a debate in which the two traded insults, the prime minister went a step further, or lower, using a vulgar word for part of the male genitalia to brand Italians who vote for the opposition.

Prodi, meanwhile, faltered when he failed to quickly clarify his plans to raise taxes. Eventually, he said he planned to reinstitute the inheritance tax, but only for the very rich.

"This is a very sad campaign," said Beppe Severgnini, a social commentator and author of La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. "The choice for Italians is between a disaster if Berlusconi stays, and a huge question mark if he goes."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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