Age catches up as Berlusconi loses his populist touch
HIS private life was scandalous, his business dealings prone to corruption and his achievements during three terms in office somewhat patchy. But one thing, that always helped Italian voters to forgive Silvio Berlusconi was his ability to work a crowd.
Schooled in the art of performance since his early days as a cruise ship singer, his knack for public speaking and entertaining the common man with risque jokes always gave him an edge over dull-but-worthy left-wing rivals.
Today, however, as Italians go to the polls to choose a new prime minister, it seems that the disgraced 76-year-old politician has lost even his populist touch.
Far from electrifying his audiences, for much of the two-month campaign he has seemed disorientated and confused, with none of his previous spark and focus.
In Turin last week, he arrived an hour late to his rally, then delivered a rambling two-hour speech, sometimes seemingly lost in his thoughts. At one point, he asked baffled supporters, seemingly out of the blue: "Are you hungry?"
Moreover, he even appears to have lost his touch with his risque humour. Having previously been adept at steering between amusing and offensive, he asked a blushing young female employee at a rally in Venice whether she climaxed during sex. She has demanded an apology.
Mr Berlusconi, who was forced to step down as prime minister in 2011 after a financial crisis threatened to destabilise Italy's public debt, has also been dogged by concerns about his health.
On Friday night, he was forced to pull out of his final campaign rally in Naples – billed as a triumphant denouement to a meteoric campaign – owing to doctors' concerns.
Campaign staff said he had problems with his eyesight and that he would appear by video link, rather in person.
The cancellation immediately caused speculation about his advancing years.
Overall, his campaign has been more like that of the plodding left-winger Pier Luigi Bersani – the current front-runner, with 35 per cent of the vote – than the dynamic Il Cavaliere (the Knight) that many remember.
Mr Berlusconi is tipped to come second in the polls, with about 30 per cent.
Beppe Grillo, the tousle-haired comedian leading his 'anti-politics' Five Star Movement, is polling a remarkable 20 per cent with his environmentalist, anti-EU platform.
Mr Berlusconi remains popular, however, among Italians who admire him for 'standing up' to the European Union, in particular Germany's Angela Merkel, and acting as a champion of ordinary people.
Millions of householders received official-looking red envelopes through the post last week, telling them how, if Mr Berlusconi is elected, they will be able to reclaim monies paid in a hated property tax introduced by the caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti.
The ageing Lothario seems nostalgic for his previous barnstorming successes. The film that plays at the beginning of his rallies is intended to sell optimism by focusing on his 'good old days' in the 1990s as a youthful, energetic and happy entrepreneur, building his Milan football team and television empire and featuring – of course – plenty of scantily clad dancers.