Silvio Berlusconi is proving he can still be a political force in spite of his age, his regular visits to the criminal courts and his reputation for putting his own well-being before his country's.
Mr. Berlusconi has managed to impress his fans and his enemies by mounting a slick campaign – though one turned desperate in its final days – that brought him back from the political dead ahead of the two-day general election that ends Monday. In late 2011, at the height of the Italian debt crisis, he was effectively ousted as Italy's prime minister and vowed to call it quits: Basta!
He was 75 at the time, had been premier thrice and knew he was unloved by Europe's leaders, who blamed him for taking the euro zone's third-largest economy to the brink of financial calamity. He was also unloved by the millions of unemployed, who accused him of partying his way through the financial collapse and recession (resulting in charges that he paid an underage prostitute for sex). Many Italians assumed he was finished. But Mr. Berlusconi is an action junkie and apparently could not resist the lure of launching his sixth campaign. Italy's grinding recession also gave him the the opportunity to tap into voter anger and disenchantment.
Mr. Berlusconi is not only back, he is crowding the front-runner, Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, and his centre-left coalition, in the polls. While it is highly unlikely that Mr. Berlusconi will win both the upper and lower houses of parliament, he could deprive Mr. Bersani of a majority in the upper house, triggering a round of political chaos that Italy does not need when it is trying to repair its dire finances and emerge from Europe's second-deepest recession, after Greece.
On the off-chance Mr. Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PDL) wins a majority, the former premier has said he would like to become finance minister, not prime minister, though he has a habit of changing his mind.
The last official polls, from SWG Institute, had Mr. Berlusconi climbing to 27.8 per cent and Mr. Bersani dropping to 33.8 per cent. In third place was Beppe Grillo, the ferocious loudmouth and stand-up comedian whose anti-corruption euroskeptic party, the Five Star Movement (M5S), surged to 18.8 per cent. Dead last was caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti, the professorial promoter of German-style austerity, polling at a mere 13.4 per cent.
There is a sense among Italians that Mr. Berlusconi, and certainly Mr. Grillo, are a bit more popular than the most recent surveys suggest. (Official polls are banned in the final two weeks of the campaign.) That's because Mr. Berlusconi is more liked by voters than many are willing to admit. "Everyone says they won't vote for Berlusconi, but they do," said Nancy (who would not give her last name), an Italian-Egyptian volunteer hospital worker who watched him in action on Wednesday at a suburban Roman cancer hospital. "He keeps winning."
How did the old man of Italian politics, the king of bunga bunga (a reference to the reported sex games in his villas) and tax cheat – he is appealing a tax-fraud conviction handed down in October – revive his political career?
In public appearances, he is a crowd-pleaser, a natural schmoozer. He is a compelling meld of entertainer, comedian and serious politician, though one who is showing his age; his face is stretched and his skin colour, dangerously close to orange, looks unnatural.
He speaks plainly, as Ronald Reagan did, and knows all the right buttons to press.
At his hospital appearance, his sympathetic words about the plight of the average Italian family, struggling with fresh taxes and vanishing job opportunities, earned him sympathetic nods and enthusiastic applause. He was especially critical of the hated property tax, known as IMU, which now applies to primary residences. The tax, a key part of Mr. Monti's austerity campaign, was introduced last year and was aimed at stabilizing Italy's finances, but may have backfired because it sapped families' buying power.
"Austerity piled onto an economy in trouble makes the economy worse," he told the hospital workers.
The unscripted speech appeared to work a little bit of magic. "It was a good speech because it touched on all the things that affect families, like taxes," said Norma Cameli, 51, a dermatologist.
There is no doubt his kill-the-property-tax campaign resonates with Italians as they trudge through a deepening recession. "Berlusconi offers dreams and a handful of money to the people," said Violina Hristrova, a Bulgarian-Italian food and fashion writer who lives in Rome. "Many people are really desperate and will latch onto anything, unfortunately."
While Mr. Berlusconi's anti-tax, anti-austerity message (read: anti-Monti) triggered his popularity rally, unofficial polls this week suggested that Il Cavaliere – The Knight, as he is known – was having trouble closing the small gap between his centre-right party and Mr. Bersani's centre-left. Blame Mr. Grillo and his populist M5S movement.
Mr. Grillo, who calls Mr. Berlusconi the "Dwarf Zombie" and Mr. Monti "Rigor Montis," leads a party that defies a convenient address on the left-to-right political spectrum, but appears to be stealing more votes from the centre-right than anywhere else.
So Mr. Berlusconi rolled out the heavy artillery. This week, he mailed millions of letters to Italians that promised not only to kill the IMU property tax, but also to reimburse any amounts paid, a commitment that would return about €4-billion to homeowners. The letter was denounced as a "scam" by Mr. Bersani and as a money-for-votes "crime" by Antonio Ingroia, the former Mafia prosecutor who leads a small leftist party.
By Friday night in Italy, the election was still too close to call. Mr. Bersani stood to win the lower house of parliament, but Mr. Berlusconi's never-say-die campaign, combined with Mr. Grillo's dazzling anti-corruption rants, threatened to upset the centre-left's plans to nail both houses of parliament.
"The politics of Italy are very strange," said Fiorella Leonardi, a volunteer worker who attended Mr. Berlusconi's hospital event. "Berlusconi is very charismatic. He could win."