Italy's Berlusconi Returns From Political Graveyard

As the Italian elections near, disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his coalition have surged to second place. Many are curious as to how he was able to resurrect himself.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. In Italy, elections begin this coming Sunday and voters appear disoriented by a motley array of parties. Even political analysts are finding it difficult to explain how the disgraced former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has managed to resurrect himself.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that he's pulled his rightist coalition into second place, just behind the center-left Democratic Party.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Silvio Berlusconi - who resigned in disgrace 14 months ago to hand over his financially-strapped country to the technocrat, Mario Monti - has returned from the political graveyard. The latest polls showed his coalition just five to seven points behind the Democratic Party's 33 percent. The Democrats' leader, Pierlugi Bersani, acknowledges Berlusconi's talents as a showman.

PIERLUGI BERSANI: (Through translator) As a cabaret performer, Berlusconi is very good. The only problem is, it's not time for cabaret. The country has pressing issues that can't be solved with his methods.

POGGIOLI: And those methods resemble the bread and circuses of Roman emperors. The circus part was the acquisition of soccer star Mario Balotelli for Berlusconi's Milan team, a move that analysts say could swing 1.3 percent of the electorate. The bread part are campaign promises to create four million new jobs, to pass amnesties for tax evasion and illegal construction. And Berlusconi has made one promise that goes well beyond simply repealing Monti's most unpopular tax to bring Italy's finances back from the brink.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) In our first cabinet session we will order a refund of the unjust property tax paid by citizens in 2012, and it will be deposited directly into their bank accounts, or paid in cash.

POGGIOLI: With international financial markets already showing signs of nervousness at the thought of a return of a Berlusconi-led government and the end of austerity policies, caretaker Prime Minister Monti dismissed the tax refund promise as a poisoned meatball that would plunge Italy back into financial turmoil.

PRIME MINISTER MARIO MONTI: (Through translator) My predecessor's promises are attempts to buy votes with the taxpayers' own money. He may gain popularity, but that's a sign of a country without any memory.

POGGIOLI: Monti is the darling of Italy's austerity-first European Union partners, notably Germany, but his newly formed centrist coalition is polling at only about 15 percent of the vote. Mario Marazziti is a member Sant'Egidio, an influential Catholic organization involved in conflict resolution and a candidate on Monti's centrist slate. He expresses frustration at Berlusconi's ability to set the campaign agenda.

MARIO MARAZZITI: Probably this is the worst political campaign ever, over 50 years. I've never seen such a thing. The pied piper of Hamelin, Mr. Berlusconi, promise and do incredible things, are only lies.

POGGIOLI: Big outdoor rallies are a thing of the past - a sign, analysts say, of the political establishment's growing distance from the electorate. Instead, this campaign has embraced infotainment and it's being carried out almost exclusively on TV and social media.

Berlusconi is constantly on television, while Monti has become an aficionado of Twitter and Facebook. But one small event for Berlusconi loyalists was held last week in a restored Roman temple. It seemed like a good place to ask supporters what they still see in the former prime minister who faces numerous trials for corruption and for paying for sex with a minor.

Chiara Calasce, a young woman who works for the party's press office, blames the media for smearing Berlusconi.

CHIARA CALASCE: Most of the scandals about Berlusconi and bunga bunga are not true. It's fake. As you perfectly know, not all the things we read on the news are exactly, I mean, the truth, you know.

POGGIOLI: Analysts believe the center-left - not Berlusconi - will win, but with not enough votes to govern alone. What makes post-election scenarios even more complicated is that this is not just a three-way race between the Democrats' Bersani and Monti and Berlusconi. There's also the anti-establishment Five-star-movement created by comedian Beppe Grillo.

He's the only one traveling cross-country, filling squares with voters suffering from the economic crisis and angry at widespread political corruption. The movement is surging in the polls; it's even ahead of Monti. And the Grillini, as the Five Star movement candidates are known, are vowing that once elected they're going to shake up parliament. Sylvia Poggiolo, NPR News, Rome.

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