February 25, 2018 / 4:37 PM / 8 months ago

Italy's Berlusconi regales fans a week ahead of vote

MILAN (Reuters) - Italian center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi entertained a theater packed with supporters in Milan on Sunday, a week ahead of a parliamentary election at which his coalition is expected to win the most votes.

During the rally, an unusual event in a campaign so far largely dedicated to TV talk shows, the 81-year-old spoke for more than two hours as around 1,000 fans cheered, clapped and waved the flag of his Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party.

“You have a mandate to be missionaries of freedom and democracy this week,” he said, flashing a bright smile and showing little of the fatigue that has marked his recent appearances.

The coalition, which also includes the eurosceptic League and nationalist Brothers of Italy, was leading in the final polls ahead of the March 4 vote, although it looks likely to fall short of a working majority.

The four-times premier cracked a stream of jokes, even on the topic of joblessness, which remains sensitive in a country with one of the lowest employment rates in the euro zone.

He described having read a university study which he said showed that by 2040 technological developments would mean only half the currently employed workforce would be necessary.

“We need to decide whether we all go to the park and look at other people’s babysitters, or if we create something new, which would be preferable,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.

Italian leader of the centre-right party Forza Italia Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks flanked by mayor of Varese Attilio Fontana (R) during a pre-election gathering in Milan, Italy February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca

Support for Forza Italia has almost halved since 2001, but regained some ground in the last year and was ahead of its main coalition partner the League in most polls before a two-week blackout period kicked in.

Numerous legal cases, sex scandals, and a ban from office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction have not reduced his personal appeal among die-hard fans.

“He just gets better, he’s always so endearing,” said Vincenza Mattiello, a 43 year-old school worker from near Naples, in southern Italy, who attended Sunday’s event with her son. “Even if we don’t see much of him, we believe in him.”

Berlusconi has yet to formally announce who would be his prime minister candidate if Forza Italia gets more votes than its allies, but he said on Sunday that the work of government should be undertaken by people with experience outside politics.

“We need to have protagonists of so-called real life in the cabinet,” he said. “Protagonists of business, management, the professions, culture.”

A coalition plan to introduce a flat tax for individuals and firms - a suggestion Berlusconi made while in power but never realized - has been one of the most discussed of the campaign.

Such economic considerations are the main reason to vote Forza Italia, said Alberto Giovenco, a 34-year-old from Sicily who runs an agricultural company, and watched Sunday’s event on a screen in the lobby of the theater when seats ran out.

“If you cut taxes you can hire young people,” Giovenco said. “Berlusconi is the only one who can really do something. He has experience, he’s a businessman.”

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Reporting by Isla Binnie, Editing by William Maclean

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