Thu, Apr 09, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Berlusconi takes charge in aftermath of earthquake

Some may not like his style, but the PM knows how to remain popular

By Stephen Brown  /  REUTERS , ROME

Italy’s earthquake gives Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi a chance to show the drive that has kept him at the top of Italian politics for 15 years, while the economic impact won’t affect his popularity, which is still high despite the recession.

Before the disaster, opponents had called the conservative leader undemocratic for criticizing parliament as slow. That was forgotten on Monday as he visited the ruined Abruzzo region, still shaken by aftershocks, and rattled off orders.

“The government is here,” said the 72-year-old billionaire, repeating the motto he used in Naples to clear away in two months stinking piles of shoulder-high rubbish that the previous center-left administration had failed to shift in 20. In March he inaugurated a new plant, built in just 10 months, which will generate power from the trash.

On Monday in L’Aquila, the 13th-century mountain city turned to rubble by the earthquake that killed more than 200 people and made 17,000 people homeless, he vowed to repair the ruins and build a new town for young families “in 24 to 28 months.”

Italy is used to seeing pharaonic public works promised and never delivered, with funds siphoned off by officials and the mafia. In Sicily, people are still living in emergency huts built for victims of a quake in 1908 that killed 5,000 people.

WIDELY RESPECTED

But emergency response is now coordinated by the widely respected Civil Protection Department, which by early on Tuesday was well on the way to erecting 7,000 tents in and around Abruzzo’s main town L’Aquila, enough to house 40,000.

When questions were asked on Monday why the agency did not respond to recent warnings from an Italian scientist in Abruzzo that a major quake was on its way, seismologists and politicians of all colors dismissed it as “unscientific” speculation and defended the Civil Protection chief.

Side-by-side with rescue leaders in L’Aquila, a serious Berlusconi said now was the time to concentrate on relief and “later we can talk about whether earthquakes can be predicted.”

Berlusconi enjoys high popularity ratings in Italy — his own polls put him at more than 60 percent and independent polls at more 50 percent, way ahead of the center-left. These belie what he calls hostile treatment from the media, which he complains “makes one want to say ‘Go to hell!’”

Top Italian pollster Renato Mannheimer said Berlusconi had managed to circumvent the media and build a direct rapport with ordinary Italians, and his response to the earthquake was likely to further boost his ratings.

“Berlusconi is very popular. It is not that one event can change your popularity. But he has an ability to create a direct rapport with the population ... which works very well and has also worked in this case,” Mannheimer said.

“He is building a direct relationship with voters which he emphasizes in different episodes of political life. This is an ongoing process and is triumphing at the moment,” he said.

Rebuilding the medieval towns and villages of Abruzzo — which one journalist flying over the area said looked like “Lego broken into thousands of pieces” — seems a tough prospect for a country mired in its worst recession since World War II.

Berlusconi promised 30 million euros (US$40.6 million) in immediate aid and “hundreds” of millions more in EU disaster funds.

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