ROME—They call themselves “the club.” A doctor, a business-owner, retirees and engineers — united by their support for one of Europe’s most controversial politicians, Silvio Berlusconi.
Outsiders might struggle to understand the continued appeal of the four-time, scandal-ridden prime minister, driven from office a year ago at the height of Italy’s economic crisis and replaced by former European Commissioner Mario Monti.
But while support for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party is half what it once was, it still commands 16.5 per cent and remains a formidable player as Italy prepares for elections in February.
“We are all Berlusconiani. We do not want Monti. We don’t want someone who takes orders from Brussels,” said teacher Annalisa Lillo, 49, in the Rome antiques shop where the club meets to discuss politics in the evenings.
On Friday, Monti said he would lead a coalition of centrist parties who support his European and reform-minded agenda in the upcoming parliamentary election.
The announcement clarified some of the uncertainty hanging over the election, and put him at the centre of a three-way contest for power with the centre-left Democratic Party, who are currently leading in the polls, and Berlusconi’s party.
Members of “the club,” fuelled by cake and glasses of sparkling wine, lobby politicians, attend pro-Berlusconi rallies and scrub off anti-Berlusconi graffiti in the neighbourhood where they meet.
On one evening, some 20 men and women ranging in age from their twenties to seventies sat in a circle on assorted antique furniture discussing Berlusconi’s return to the leadership of the PDL.
“He knows the pulse of Italians,” said 39-year old engineer Alessio Brugnoli. “Berlusconi is the obligatory choice.”
One poll showed PDL support rose three points in the week after he announced his candidacy, proving there is life in the old man yet and it would be rash to underestimate him.
“Berlusconi is an unusual politician. He’s a businessman. He’s not in politics to claim expenses and get an official car. He lives, works to help businesses,” retiree Augusto Senesi said. “You cannot say he damaged the country.”
The 76-year-old media mogul’s campaign began in earnest this week when he rallied his ample resources to fill the airwaves with the time-worn tenets of his sales pitch: anti-tax, pro-business, and anti-communist.
He is making the most of the fact that on Monday, Italians had to pay a hated property tax reintroduced by Monti’s government. Berlusconi has promised to cancel it.
He illustrated what he sees as a communist threat in an interview on Sunday where he recounted a story about a family in the Soviet Union who were massacred by authorities trying to locate a bishop.
This might seem odd to those outside Italy but it emphasized the Marxist origins of much of the country’s political left — and deftly played on old fears of conservative voters.
Berlusconi’s enormous media control ensures that his point of view — for example, that the many court cases against him stem from a left-wing judicial conspiracy — get substantial airing.
On one issue the club is unanimous: that the replacement of Berlusconi with the Monti government was a coup d’etat by nebulous forces in Brussels and possibly orchestrated with the deliberate collusion of financial markets.
“Berlusconi was democratically elected. This has been a dark phase of democracy. Twelve months of horror. Europe set us up,” said 34-year-old engineer Marco Ajello.
Berlusconi insists he supports a strong Pan-European foreign policy, but he intersperses those claims with tirades against “German-imposed austerity” and the “rigging” of the European Union to favour northern member countries.
“Look, if you add it up, over the last 10 years Italy has lost out from the euro,” engineer Ajello said.
Berlusconi earlier said he would withdraw to support Monti if he ran at the head of coalition of the centre-right and moderates.
Yet this thought horrifies the club, who believe the PDL has lost support because it cooperated with Monti — the darling of the international financial community — for too long.
One opinion poll published this week estimated that a centrist coalition led by Monti could hope to gain between 11 and 15 per cent of the vote.
The 69-year-old economics professor has been widely credited for restoring Italy’s international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi years.
But ordinary Italians have become increasingly tired of the mix of tax hikes and spending cuts he has imposed to repair Italy’s battered public finances.
Monti said that there would be a single list of candidates, possibly called “Monti’s agenda for Italy,” in the upper house, while he would likely be the prime ministerial candidate for a coalition of established parties in the lower house.
Berlusconi is now on trial on charges of paying for sex with a minor during one of the so-called “Bunga Bunga” parties at his plush residences.
He has denied any wrongdoing in that case and in others where he has been accused of corruption and tax fraud, decrying what he says is a politically motivated war against him by leftist magistrates.
Many Italians do not believe him. But as far as the members of “the club” are concerned, he is preaching to the converted.