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Bad Boys Make Italian Horse Race a Tight One

A comedian convicted of manslaughter, a technocrat, a populist sleazeball, a leftist—these are the leading characters in a fascinating Italian election season just a month before the vote.

It’s a closer race than you would expect. Seventy-six-year-old Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi, ousted by the technocrat “Mediocre Mario” Monti as prime minister in 2011, is defying accusations of mafia ties and stories of his famed sexual misadventures to shoot upwards in the polls. He now trails the center-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani by just 4 points. These gains follow a media blitz, including a primetime appearance by Berlusconi on a popular talk show last week that was watched by a quarter of the Italian electorate. Before the show many people were convinced Berlusconi would end up skulking off the stage in disgrace. Far from it. Sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair on stage, the former Prime Minister was grilled for three hours by hosts who were eager to skewer him, but it was Berlusconi who had the last laugh at the end. “Mixing humour with statistics and a populist appeal to growing eurosceptic sentiments, Mr Berlusconi blended facts with fiction and got away with it,” reported the Financial Times. “I’m having fun!” the three-time Prime Minister said to great consternation from the flustered hosts. That show alone won Berlusconi 400,000 votes, according to pollster Nicola Piepoli. “By the end he was great.”

Meanwhile another bad boy is shaking up the race even more, reports the New York Times: “Not to be discounted, analysts say, is the Five Star Movement of [former comedian Beppe] Grillo, which placed first in the Sicilian regional elections and is popular with young people fed up with Italy’s political class. It is essentially a party without a leader, since Mr. Grillo cannot be elected because he has a conviction for manslaughter in a car accident in which three people died.”

At the top of the polls is the Democratic Party led by Pier Luigi Bersani, a far more mellow character. Joining the Democrats’ alliance from the fringe of Italian politics is the Left, Ecology, Freedom Party. Bersani’s alliance might end up forming a coalition with Mario Monti’s centrist alliance, an “incoherent” bloc lacking political direction that currently languishes in third place in polls.

But as the election approaches the momentum is with the bad boys. “I don’t care about Berlusconi’s so-called mafia ties,” one woman told the FT after watching Berlusconi’s triumph on television. “Just as long as he abolishes the property tax.” This probably wouldn’t be the case if the economy were in good shape: Today the Bank of Italy slashed its GDP growth forecast from the already dismal figure of 0.2 percent to a contraction of 1 percent.

As usual, Italian politics is anything but boring. The question is: will any of these parties achieve a mandate and come up with the ideas to address Italy’s economic problems?

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