Italy's Berlusconi Tries to Resurrect His Popularity

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces a general election next month. The Italian economy is foundering, and Berlusconi's support for the war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular in Italy. His TV campaign has been curtailed by election rules, but even so, Berlusconi's face is everywhere.

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Italian prosecutors today called for the indictment of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on corruption charges. A spokesman for the Prime Minister accused prosecutors of trying to hurt Berlusconi's chances of reelection next month.

Italy is in the middle of a rancorous election campaign that the Prime Minister is waging almost exclusively on television.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Strict campaign rules are in effect. Nevertheless, Silvio Berlusconi is everywhere on Italian television. Berlusconi the media tycoon owns the nation's three major commercial networks. And as Prime Minister he controls the three state own channels known as RAI.

Journalist Luciano Annunziata stepped down as chairman of the board in 2004 because of what she called Berlusconi's constant interference.

Ms. LUCIANO ANNUNZIATA: Yes, he abused all the time, in television, even in the public service. Because he has placed so many people in the public services that just need to make a phone call to say, I'm coming. And those people will make space for him.

POGGIOLI: Trailing in the polls against the center left opposition parties, Berlusconi's center right government pushed through Parliament last minute changes in the election law that diminished a voter's ability to choose individual candidates.

Right-wing commentator Marcelo Veneziani says TV is now the ultimate political tool.

Mr. MARCELO VENEZIANI (Italian Political Commentator): (Through translator) It is party leaderships that now decide who will run and who will be elected. Candidates no longer have links to the geographical location that they are running. So television becomes the only campaign stop and it is through the seductive power of television that votes are won.

POGGIOLI: There is no greater media seducer then Berlusconi, a master of simple syntax, of colorful embellishments and of an unlimited self-confidence. He recently compared himself to Churchill, Napoleon, Moses, and Jesus Christ. His message is simple, he entered politic at huge personal sacrifice to save Italy from communism, a task, he says, he has not yet fully achieved.

Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through Translator) The left controls most of the judiciary, controls elementary and high school education and universities. It controls most newspapers, television, news programs, unions, industrial, cinema, and thanks to the laziness and distraction of my voters, the left controls most municipalities, regions and provinces.

(Soundbite of fanfare)

POGGIOLI: Berlusconi's constant charge against the communist enemy offers material for Antonio Cornacchione, one of the few remaining comedians able to parody Berlusconi on Italian TV.

(Soundbite of Italian television)

POGGIOLI: Communists notwithstanding, Berlusconi's critics say he has enriched himself considerably while in office in the last five years. According to Forbes Magazine, he's worth $11 billion. Berlusconi also owns banks, insurance companies, the two major publishing houses and a major football team. He also controls most media advertising. Julio Columbo, former editor of the leftist daily L'Unita says Berlusconi tried to stifle criticism.

Mr. JULIO COLUMBO (Writer): The block of advertisement was total, complete. Not one part of giving advertisement to Lunita because it would put him or her in bad light. The idea is you don't need Berlusconi as an enemy.

POGGIOLI: Berlusconi came to power promising Italians they'd get richer, and today, he says, his has been the country's best government in 50 years. But critics point out Italy's zero economic growth. Exports have plummeted; foreign investors have fled. A recent poll showed nearly 40 percent of young people want to leave the country. And in an unprecedented move, the country's biggest and most authoritative newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, this week endorsed the center left opposition.

The paper said the Berlusconi government seems to have focused more on the personal interests of the Prime Minister than those of the country.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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