Sat, Feb 23, 2013 - Page 7 News List

Berlusconi, comic blow Italy poll wide open

Reuters, ROME

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s resurgence and the rise of a foul-mouthed populist comedian have thrown Italy’s weekend election wide open, with deep uncertainty over whether the poll can produce the strong government the country needs.

Italy, the eurozone’s third-biggest economy, is deep in its longest recession for 20 years. Successive governments have failed to revive an economy stagnant for two decades.

Public fury over record unemployment — especially among the young — tax increases and economic pain, combined with a recent rash of high-level corruption cases, has fanned support for comic Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

A skillful Internet user, Grillo has been the most active on the hustings, touring Italy in a camper van on a “tsunami tour,” shouting himself hoarse with obscenity-laced insults at a discredited political class, winning roars of approval from large crowds.

Some analysts say his could be the third-biggest single party in the vote tomorrow and on Monday, with about 20 percent support, ahead of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party.

Berlusconi, 76, spent most of last year in the shadows — undermined by a lurid sex scandal — after he was ignominiously bundled out of power and replaced by technocrat Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti in November 2011 as Italy faced a grave debt crisis.

Monti imposed austerity policies and brought borrowing back under control, winning plaudits from Italy’s European partners, but the billionaire media magnate burst back in December last year in an extraordinary blitz of TV appearances, belying his age, that halved center-left Pier Luigi Bersani’s 10-point poll lead over the former prime minister’s center-right coalition.

Berlusconi, a born showman and master communicator, backed by a television empire, has won back voters by attacking a hated housing tax imposed by Monti and offering to pay it back, something his opponents say is an impossible vote-buying trick.

Bersani, a worthy but dull former minister, and his Democratic Party have seemed stuck in their tracks, complacent about their lead and unable to respond dynamically to the threat from Berlusconi and Grillo.

Monti has disappointed European partners and investors who would like to see him return to office to continue his reform agenda. Analysts said on Thursday his centrist support was draining and he may fall below 12 percent.

Pollsters still believe the most likely outcome is a center-left government headed by Bersani and backed by Monti, but the rise of Grillo and Berlusconi, and the outgoing prime minister’s weak performance, are causing jitters about whether the election would produce a strong government committed to reform.

Latest published polls before a legal blackout on Feb. 9 showed the center-left about 5 points ahead and analysts believe this still holds, with perhaps a slight decline in support.

Italy may lose momentum on reforms vital to revive growth if no clear winner emerges from the election, credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said on Wednesday.

Bersani’s opponents also say he would be unable to agree on reforms with Monti, and would be hobbled by trade unions and leftists, something party officials deny.

Grillo owes much of his success to rage at the failure of lawmakers to keep their promises to transform the economy, change a badly flawed electoral law, cut the privileges of a pampered political class and combat rampant corruption.

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