Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) has returned to Italy's political scene in advance of next month's election. Also in the race is the current Prime Minister Mario Monti (right). They are shown here in November 2011 as Monti took over for Berlusconi.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) has returned to Italy's political scene in advance of next month's election. Also in the race is the current Prime Minister Mario Monti (right). They are shown here in November 2011 as Monti took over for Berlusconi. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
With elections in Italy just weeks away, polls show leftist parties with a comfortable lead. Yet attention is focused on the battle between the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the current prime minister, Mario Monti, an austere technocrat.
Monti's platform calls for continued austerity, budget cutting and labor reforms.
While Berlusconi and Monti are the two big names in next month's race, the expected winner is the leader of the leftist Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani.
Most analysts believe the government will ultimately be a coalition between Monti and the Democratic Party, which wants more emphasis on growth stimulus and jobs creation. But until results are in, no one can say which party will get the prime minister's job and the upper hand in setting policy.
A few weeks ago, 12 million Italian TV viewers tuned in to watch Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni lampoon Berlusconi.
"He's back! He's actually running again! Silvio, have mercy on us!" Benigni pleaded. "This is your sixth campaign!"
This is how the increasingly cosmetically enhanced 76-year-old media tycoon responded: "You Italians need me. I do not hold back when I feel the duty to help those in need."
The right-wing Berlusconi is widely seen as an untenable candidate. He's been found guilty of corruption, and he's waiting for the verdict on charges of having paid for sex with a minor.
Berlusconi Retains Supporters
But analyst Giulietto Chiesa says Berlusconi has hard-core supporters willing to forgive his "bunga bunga" orgies and diplomatic gaffes.
"In the last 20 years, we had a very deep moral degeneration of the country," Chiesa says. "Mr. Berlusconi has obtained an important result. He has changed the mood, not of the majority of the country, but of a large chunk of the population of the country."
In a country with high tax evasion, many voters see Berlusconi as champion of their vested interests. That means sharply lowering — if not eliminating — a slew of property, gasoline and value-added taxes the Monti government imposed to try to lower Italy's massive debt.
The country now has one of the highest taxation rates in Europe, and rates will rise more this year.
Berlusconi has revived his populist promise to cut back taxes.
Appearing constantly on TV, he uses vitriol against his successor, calling him a pygmy leader and a liar who takes orders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In response, Monti adopted the ironic rhetorical style of Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
"If Berlusconi believes I am not very credible, that means I'm not very credible. I respect his judgment; he's an authoritative person," Monti recently told an interviewer.
Very Different Candidates
The tall, erudite Monti stands in sharp contrast to the short, pugnacious Berlusconi.
But Monti, too, has sharpened his tone and seems to be enjoying the fight, reminding voters that it was Berlusconi who led the country to the edge of the financial abyss.
Monti has also taken to the airwaves and has embraced Twitter as a campaign tool, telling his followers he feels like a pioneer. His main aim is to bring members of civil society — young people and women in particular — into Parliament, and he promises that none of his candidates will have issues with the law.
Gabriele Italiano, a young entrepreneur who has spent time working abroad, is a strong Monti supporter.
"I'm in favor of the person, I'm in favor his professionalism, of his knowledge of the European Union mechanisms that I think are the base for the future of Italy, even though the majority of the people here don't understand the importance of them," Italiano says.
In fact, the Italian middle class has suffered the brunt of Monti's austerity policies — lower salaries and pensions, higher taxes and rising unemployment. And despite strong support for Monti from the Vatican and the international community, it's not surprising his popularity is dropping. Polls give him and his allies just 15 percent of the vote, compared with 20 percent for Berlusconi.