Berlusconi gets his numbers wrong as age takes toll on wily billionaire
Silvio Berlusconi has left an audience baffled by boasting that as prime minister he had made sure Italians got monthly pensions of 1,000 lire - the cost of a single espresso.
Leading a centre-right coalition that tops polls ahead of the election on March 4, the 81-year-old leader is beginning to show some signs of fragility as he fights back from a ban from holding public office, sex scandals and legal entanglements.
"I have fought back against all the nastiness, all the attacks, all the lies thrown at me, from Bunga Bunga to the minors and all the rest," he told a Rome conference.
He also made a number of verbal slips, saying tax evasion in Italy totalled €800,000, a fraction of the real figure, and economic output was just €1,600, rather than €1.7trn.
Yet to appear at any political rallies ahead of the vote, the billionaire has focused his campaign on cosy TV chat shows - and has cancelled some of those, pleading tiredness.
"He's showing his age," said Giovanni Orsina, professor of modern history at Rome's Luiss University.
"In the past 10 years the losses, the hits he has taken have had a role in reducing his political abilities."
Support for his centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party has almost halved since 2001.
It only has a good chance of sharing victory thanks to a deal with far-right allies the League and Brothers of Italy, whose radical messages he often steps in to temper.
"I am still ahead of all the other political leaders even though I can't stand for office," he said. "Obviously, I don't have the 75.3pc approval I used to have."
According to a Demos poll, Mr Berlusconi came a lowly eighth on the list of Italy's most respected political leaders, with an approval rating of 26pc.
Charges of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute eventually led to an acquittal, but the only definitive conviction after numerous legal cases against him - in 2013, for tax fraud - saw him banished from parliament.
Mr Berlusconi's continued appeal lies in his old age and the fact he is already rich, removing the suspicion that he is in politics for personal gain, a common fear in a country where corruption thrives.