* Berlusconi fought back after humiliation in 2011
* Skilful communicator shrugged off sex scandals
* Ran rings around Bersani/Monti but rivalled by Grillo
By Barry Moody
ROME, Feb 26 Billionaire showman Silvio
Berlusconi has again pulled off an astonishing fight-back from
scandal and humiliation, coming within a whisker of success in
Before the Feb 24-25 vote, pollsters and analysts widely
predicted this would be the media magnate's last hurrah and he
would be clearly beaten by his centre-left foes. They said he
would eventually disappear from the scene.
Instead, Berlusconi was one of the big winners alongside the
populist leader and comedian Beppe Grillo, defying polls and
building substantial negotiating power for tortuous talks on how
to form a new government despite a deeply uncertain result.
His success is a qualified one for sure and cannot hide the
fact that his People of Freedom (PDL) party has slumped to
almost half the 38 percent of votes it won in a landslide
victory in 2008.
But compared with expectations it was a shock. His brother's
il Giornale newspaper reflected his supporters' relief and joy
with a giant front page headline reading "Berlusconi Miracle."
Berlusconi himself is said to be disappointed that he didn't
win outright, but he is set to seize almost as many seats in the
Senate as his centre-left rivals. In the lower house his
centre-right coalition lost out on a giant winner's premium by
less than one percentage point.
Combined with the extraordinary success of Grillo, this has
deadlocked parliament in a result that left Italy's future
uncertain and unnerved global markets.
Such a success seemed unimaginable only two months ago,
except to pundits who have learned never to underestimate the
former cruise ship crooner during his two decades at the centre
of the political stage.
The 76-year-old four-times prime minister looked down and
out for much of 2012 after a jeering crowd hounded him from
office in November 2011 with Italy tottering towards a
Greek-style debt crisis.
Months of indecision over whether to stand in the election
brought his PDL to the brink of disintegration with less than 15
percent in the polls.
But since precipitating the fall of his successor,
technocrat Mario Monti, in December and diving into the
campaign, Berlusconi has shown unrivalled mastery of
communication and energy belying his age.
"Berlusconi was a poor prime minister but is a very tough
campaigner, he never gives up," said commentator Massimo Franco.
Italy's longest-serving prime minister is known for
off-the-cuff humour, diplomatic gaffes and his facelifts,
perennial tan, make-up and hair weave. Embroiled almost
constantly in scandal, including currently a lurid sex trial,
Berlusconi's success has always been a mystery abroad.
But his flamboyant persona hides a keen political mind and
an almost uncanny talent for responding to the fears and
concerns of ordinary Italians.
His success in clawing back a 10-point centre-left lead in
December is down to three factors.
He homed in on a painful housing tax imposed by Monti that
is deeply hated by Italians. His offer to pay it back was mocked
by his opponents but scored with many conservative voters
especially pensioners suffering badly in the longest recession
for 20 years.
He attacked German hegemony in Europe and accused Monti of
being a puppet of Chancellor Angela Merkel and imposing
austerity policies at her behest - another theme that resonates
with many Italians sick of recession and soaring unemployment.
The final factor is that he was, in the words of one Italian
on a radio phone-in programme on Tuesday, "shooting at an open
goal" because of the terrible campaigns run by both Monti and
centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani.
Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) was in disarray on Tuesday
after kissing away their commanding opinion poll lead and almost
losing the election because of the rise of Grillo and
Neither the colourless Bersani nor economics professor Monti
could compete with Berlusconi's antics including a storm of
television appearances in which he rarely lost his cool and
showed a talent for rapid quips that some Italians would laugh
about for days afterwards.
When the increasingly exasperated Monti accused Berlusconi
of being a pied piper leading Italians astray, the media magnate
shot back that he would probably try to tax his flute.
Monti, who disastrously tried to turn himself from a stately
and respected technocrat into a mud-slinging political fighter,
slumped in the polls with his centrist alliance winning little
over 10 percent, half their target.
Analysts said before the vote that the result investors
feared most would be a Berlusconi victory, but now he has a
chance of returning to government in a possibly uncomfortable
and short-term alliance with the centre-left.
He had to renounce his candidacy for prime minister however,
to win a crucial electoral alliance with the federalist Northern
League which successfully boosted centre-right votes in
battleground northern regions. The League rank and file are wary
of Berlusconi and his scandal-plagued reputation.
As he climbed the ratings in recent weeks, the nervousness
in European capitals, particularly his favourite target Germany,
But calls by European politicians to vote for Monti and not
Berlusconi only played into the former premier's hands, creating
resentment at foreign interference and damaging the outgoing
Berlusconi had for years seemed virtually immune to
controversies that would have destroyed a politician in many
parts of the world. He has survived up to 30 prosecutions for
fraud and corruption and is currently on trial for having sex
with an underage prostitute during lurid "bunga bunga" parties.
His wife Veronica left him in 2009, accusing him of
consorting with underage women, and was recently awarded a
settlement of 100,000 euros ($132,200) a day. But he even made
campaign jokes about that.