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Poll shows support for Berlusconi slipping

October 20, 2009

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti in Rome, published on FT on OCt 20, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s centre-right prime minister, insists he has a mandate to continue in office despite the prospect of facing two trials on corruption-related charges, but the latest opinion poll shows his support slipping to the lowest level since his solid election victory 18 months ago.

The IPR poll, published by the pro-opposition daily La Repubblica, said 45 per cent of Italians had confidence in the billionaire media mogul, down two percentage points over the last month and a fall from 62 per cent a year ago.

The poll was conducted after the constitutional court, on October 7, threw out a law giving Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution, paving the way for two suspended trials to resume against him.

In defending the need for his immunity, the centre-right government argues that Mr Berlusconi cannot devote himself to running the country while distracted by what it calls politically motivated courts. But it rejects any talk of resignation on the basis of his continued public support.

“I do everything to make myself loved,” declared Mr Berlusconi last week, claiming – without citing sources – that he enjoyed the support of 68.7 per cent of Italians. He has rejected the charges against him as “absurd” and says he will fight them in court.

Given the politicisation of almost everything in Italy, polls are read with a high degree of scepticism. IPR, rightly or not, is seen as close to La Repubblica which backs the centre-left opposition Democratic party.

Renato Mannheimer’s ISPO polling company on the other hand is regarded as closer to the government and puts support for the prime minister at “just under 50 per cent”, little changed over six months.

The picture is further clouded by different polling methods used.

IPR asks voters if they have “little or no confidence” in Mr Berlusconi or “a lot or sufficient”. ISPO asks Italians to rank their confidence level on a scale of 0 to 10 – as tests are marked in schools – with a six and above taken as a stamp of approval.

“Data is very important and so is the method,” Mr Mannheimer told the FT. “Each one (politicians) uses the data from the methodology that is best for them. Ours is an objective methodology.”

Ilvo Diamanti, a political scientist who comments for La Repubblica, notes that a six, in the minds of most Italians, is seen as barely a pass. If the bar were raised to a seven, then support for Mr Berlusconi drops to 37 per cent, which is close to what his People of Liberty party took in the 2008 general election.

Under Italy’s electoral system, the largest party on voting day is guaranteed a majority in the lower house. To maintain his majority in the Senate, however, Mr Berlusconi relies on his alliance with the Northern League — an ultra-conservative party which takes a hard line on security and immigration and was responsible for bringing down his first coalition government in 1994.

Addressing the “myth” of Mr Berlusconi’s popularity based on his “can-do” image, Mr Diamanti notes that his former Forza Italia party, before its merger this year with the post-fascist National Alliance, never had more than 30 per cent of the vote.

Mr Berlusconi’s success, Mr Diamanti told the FT, was to capture “a feeling of a wide and growing part of Italians: individualism, centrality of the family , aptitude of managing by themselves (without the help of public institutions), the myth of the self-made man, and finally a certain detachment from public rules and institutions”.

“Moreover, he mirrors the anti-communism which is present in a wide part of the Italian society,” he added.

To this must be added the crisis of the opposition, divided and without a recognised leader, Mr Diamanti said, concluding that Italians vote for Mr Berlusconi “more out of resignation than for love”.

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