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Berlusconi basks as ratings soar

October 17, 2008

Published on the Finncial Times on October 17 2008

Banks and markets are tumbling but the crisis is benefiting Silvio Berlusconi, whose treatment in some parts of the media is nearing North Korean levels of adulation as his government exerts an authority not seen for decades.

The Italian prime minister declared on front pages that “state aid, which until yesterday was considered a sin, is now absolutely essential”, along with promises of money for the car industry and other enterprises.

Ilvo Diamanti, a sociologist, said: “Disgraced in the 1980s, unnameable in the 90s, the state is back . . . as guarantor, saviour, exhibited like an icon, a sacred image.”

While banks, so far all foreign, have crashed around him, Mr Berlusconi has cultivated an image of calm and control, even checking into an Umbrian spa and dispensing stock tips: big companies with a large state holding.

A spread in Il Giornale, the media mogul’s family-run newspaper, celebrated his 72nd birthday. Greetings were listed from well-wishers, led by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister.

Italians seem to love it. An Ipr Marketing poll this week gave Mr Berlusconi a 62 per cent confidence rating, the highest since he defeated a centre-left coalition last April and entered office for a third time. “Frankly, it’s embarrassing,” he said.

Conservative cheerleaders have credited Mr Berlusconi with spearheading a European response to the crisis, and Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, with foreseeing it.

Even those aspects of Italy previously deemed as detrimental – stodgy banks, reluctance of consumers to borrow and the black economy – are now celebrated. The “saving” of state-run Alitalia from bankruptcy only confirmed the efficacy of the Italian way.

In spite of his image as a liberal entrepreneur, Mr Berlusconi, say his critics, is now where he feels most comfortable, directing markets and key sectors through the state, with Alitalia the finest example. The loss-making airline is being delivered to a group of Italian entrepreneurs by excluding a foreign buyer, changing anti-monopoly laws and presenting a multi-billion euro bill to the taxpayer.

Mr Berlusconi says he wants to change the rules to afford troubled Italian companies greater protection against hostile foreign takeovers, prompting Tito Boeri, an economist, to ask “hostile to whom” – shareholders, the company or the state?

Mr Diamanti says that this new state will succour banks and stock markets and not schools and welfare.

The authority of the state is also being expressed through deployment of the military in the refuse crisis in Naples and to combat petty prime and illegal immigration. Polls show an appreciative public.

Mr Berlusconi’s longest ever honeymoon might, however, be curtailed. In Milan, the trial of David Mills, a UK tax lawyer accused of being corrupted by Mr Berlusconi to conceal illegal accounts, resumed on Friday. Both men deny the charges.

The prime minister has wasted little time in using his solid parliamentary majority to secure immunity for himself while in office. The trial is continuing without him, and the judges have referred the immunity law to the Constitutional Court.

Mr Berlusconi, who accuses the magistrates of waging a political war against him, has in turn nominated Gaetano Pecorella, his own lawyer, to fill a vacancy on that court.

Luca Poniz, a Milan judge who is not involved in the case, said Mr Berlusconi’s defence was worried that if Mr Mills was found guilty it could reflect badly on the prime minister.

Mr Poniz, head of the Milan magistrates council, said Italian politicians were “allergic to rules” and had launched “ferocious attacks” on the judiciary, including threats to the Constitutional Court should it rule against the immunity law.

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