Billionaire showman Silvio Berlusconi has again astonished Italy with a storming comeback that has frayed nerves in European capitals and among investors, but the signs are his final gamble has failed. The 76-year-old media magnate and four-times prime minister looked down and out for much of 2012 after a jeering crowd hounded him from office in November 2011 as Italy tottered towards a Greek-style debt crisis. His indecision over whether to stand in this weekend’s election brought his People of Freedom Party (PDL) to the brink of disintegration. But since precipitating the fall of his successor, technocrat Mario Monti, in December and diving into the campaign, the former cruise ship crooner has shown unrivalled mastery of communication and energy belying his age. “Berlusconi was a poor prime minister but is a very tough campaigner, he never gives up,” said analyst Massimo Franco.
Italy’s longest-serving prime minister, who has a gift for off-the-cuff humor, has run rings around both the professorial Monti and colorless center-left frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani in the charisma stakes.
However, most pollsters think Berlusconi still lags Bersani and that in the last few days of the campaign the center left may in fact be increasing a gap which stood at around 5 percentage points when a polling blackout began on February 9.
Berlusconi is believed to be suffering at the hands of another populist crowd pleaser, anti-establishment 5-Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo, who is riding a wave of popular disgust with traditional politicians.
Grillo’s success – some analysts believe he may reach 20 percent and overtake the PDL – could undermine Berlusconi’s bid to win enough Senate seats to paralyze a center-left-led government that is likely to make a ruling alliance with Monti.
If Berlusconi does indeed fail, despite a remarkable campaign, many pundits believe he will gradually fade and eventually lose leadership of the centre right that he has headed for almost 20 years.