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Berlusconi stays sunny in stormy times

May 7, 2009

Published on FT on May 7 2009

Silvio Berlusconi greets supporters in RomeEmbroiled in what could turn into a messy and costly divorce from his wife, under attack from the Roman Catholic Church and with an economy sliding deeper into recession, Silvio Berlusconi might be excused from skipping celebrations planned on Friday to mark the first anniversary of his triumphant return to office.

Veronica Lario, the former actress suing for divorce on the grounds of his alleged infatuation with young, glamorous starlets, has ridiculed him as an “emperor”.

The centre-left opposition compares his soon-to-be passed legislation on immigrants to the racial laws of Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator, and even one of his political allies has warned of a “Caesar” complex.Yet the 72-year-old Italian prime minister and billionaire tycoon is maintaining his sunny disposition, consolidating his hold on power and enjoying popularity ratings that would be the envy of any European leader.

“Not bad – 77 per cent approval,” Mr Berlusconi was quoting as saying on Thursday in his family-run newspaper, Il Giornale – although it was not clear what poll he was referring to. Still, independent surveys give him more than 65 per cent and predict another sweeping victory in next month’s European elections over a fragmented opposition.

Even Italians who have never voted for him since the first of his three election victories in 1994 marvel at how his fortunes prosper as the country’s suffer. His critics admit he has an uncanny ability – in spite or because of his wealth and jet-setting life – to connect with ordinary people.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund is forecasting a 4.4 per cent fall in gross domestic product this year, after a decline of 1.0 per cent in 2008. Moody’s rating agency sees Italy’s public debt, the highest in Europe, rising to 111 per cent of GDP in 2009 from the 104 per cent he inherited, and unemployment exceeding 10 per cent next year.

Mr Berlusconi is still widely perceived as a “leader” and man of action, heading a centre-right coalition government that, at least for the moment, appears cohesive enough to see out its full five-year term, as did his second administration from 2001 to 2006 – and in doing so setting a first in Italy’s post-war history.

On closer inspection, however, the prime minister’s meticulous image management is coming into question, even though the mainstream media – much of it directly or indirectly under his influence – is reluctant to separate reality from fiction.

A telling example was the fanfare generated on March 26 when Mr Berlusconi ceremonially activated the long-delayed incinerator at Acerra that was presented as conclusively resolving Naples’ perennial garbage problem – a crisis of mountainous proportions that had undermined the previous centre-left government in last year’s elections.

Few Italians appear aware that Acerra is still not functioning, however. “Acerra is not working. It never has,” Raffaele del Giudice, head of the Legambiente environmental group, told the Financial Times on Thursday. “It was just switched on for the opening ceremony.”

Similarly after the devastating earthquake that destroyed the central town of L’Aquila on April 6, Italians appear ready to believe Mr Berlusconi’s promises – on the basis of his repeated visits to the quake zone that boosted his popularity ratings – that the 60,000 people now living in tents and hostels will be back in houses within six months.

But little money is actually on the table and a planned reconstruction package of €6bn ($8bn, £5.3bn) will be spread over 22 years.

Such is Mr Berlusconi’s sway over the media that Freedom House, the US watchdog, recently downgraded Italy in its global media survey from “free” to “partly free”, ranking it 73rd, between Israel and Tonga. In addition to print media, Mr Mr Berlusconi owns Mediaset’s three television channels and as prime minister he exercises influence over the three state-run channels of Rai.

With his large parliamentary majority and an opposition riven by infighting, Mr Berlusconi should be in a prime position to implement tough economic reforms.

Yet his first acts in office were directed at protecting his media empire and passing a law giving himself and three other holders of high office immunity from prosecution on the basis that they could not run the country while distracted by politically motivated prosecutors.

That law saved Mr Berlusconi from a Milan trial where he and his former UK lawyer, David Mills, were accused of corrupting justice. Mr Mills went on to be found guilty and has appealed.

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