Italian Elections Could See Return Of Berlusconi

Italian elections concluding on Monday are expected to result in a center-left governing coalition and a strong and chaotic opposition, including a coalition headed by disgraced former Prime Minister Berlusconi. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

For decades, Italian elections were of little interest abroad. And for the last 10 years, they've been identified with the antics and court cases of media tycoon-turned-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But now, things are different. The outcome of the Italian election will be closely watched across Europe, where there are fears that political instability could revive the eurozone crisis.

From Italy, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us for more on this. Sylvia, a month ago, Berlusconi's political career was thought to be completely over. He has since managed to resurrect himself, which is of great concern to Italy's EU partners and the larger financial markets.

How did this happen? How did he make this comeback happen?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: Well, you know, he's really a master campaigner and a master of TV. He jumped from one network to another, from talk shows cooking shows. Every time you switched on the remote, there he was. And it was a brazenly populist campaign. He promised tax cuts, pension hikes, millions of new jobs, all the same promises he's been making for almost 20 years but never carried out. And yet again, he convinced many Italians, mostly elderly and mostly those who get their information only from TV.

MARTIN: So there's another wild card in this campaign, an anti-establishment comedian-turned-politician. This is Beppe Grillo, I think is his name. How is he affecting the race?

BYLINE: Oh, he's been really the center of the race in some ways. He has seized the mood of the country, which is great anxiety over poverty and unemployment and anger at widespread corruption, and the outrageous perks of politicians. He has been drawing huge crowds in squares in every city from the north to the south.

Berlusconi dominated TV, but Grillo focused his entire campaign on these rallies and mainly on the Web. And he's got support now. He's winning from left to right and not only the Internet-savvy young people. His program is short on details. He wants to fight corruption and wants greater citizen participation in the political process. Unlike Berlusconi, he wants to scrap austerity measures. He also wants a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the eurozone.

In just a few weeks, his five-star movement has gone from the fringe to the center of the political arena. And as if Berlusconi were not enough, now European governments are nervously watching whether Grillo becomes the kingmaker. Some analysts think his movement could come in second.

MARTIN: So does that mean Berlusconi wins?

BYLINE: No, unless something really, you know, unless people are really lying to the pollsters or were lying until two weeks ago when the last polls were taken - and that's not impossible. No, according to the polls the winner should be the center-left Democratic Party headed by Pier Luigi Bersani. He's a political leader who's had the least coverage of all.

Bersani has roots in the old Communist Party which is now a Social Democrat Party. Bersani has a good reputation as a former industry minister. He's the most low-key of all the candidates. He's known for his folksy metaphors. And he comes from the region of Emilia-Romagna, which is the Italian culinary heartland and a place where people really know how to enjoy life.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, Sylvia, I remember another name though, Prime Minister Mario Monti. This is the guy, he took over for Berlusconi. And he passed a lot of economic reforms that actually helped restore Italy's credibility on the international markets. What happened to him in those reforms?

BYLINE: Well, he's running really far behind. His hastily formed movement may not get more than 10 percent. You know, his sobriety was seen as a relief after the off-color Berlusconi. But he's been a very poor candidate, unused to the give-and-take of campaigning. Some say he was very badly advised by American consultants.

Pollsters had predicted the vote would produce a Bersani-Monti coalition. But if Monti does really badly, that could create great uncertainty and spook the markets. But if this election does not produce a viable coalition, another round of voting could happen soon.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, thanks so much.

BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

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