By Fabian Reinbold in Palermo, Italy
The savior is making the crowd wait and Giovanni Ferrante briefly lost his faith. "Where the devil is Berlusconi hiding," he says. He's been waiting for more than an hour in a stuffy crowded hall, with narrow seats. Just then the party anthem starts playing and the star marches into the theater in Palermo, shaking hands, winking and grinning. Even those in the highest seats can see the gleam reflecting off of his unnaturally white teeth. Ferrante waves back. Il Cavaliere has finally arrived.
It's a scene being played out everyday somewhere in Italy this week. Silvio Berlusconi zips around the country holding big speeches to the party faithful. On Sunday evening he was in Turin, on Monday in Milan after his Saturday morning appearance in Palermo. A rally in Naples is on the agenda for Friday.
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's scandal-plagued former prime minister, is back. Just days before Italians are set to go to the polls on Sunday and Monday, he and his party are narrowing the once sizeable lead enjoyed by center-left candidate Pier Luigi Bersani. Just how narrow that lead now is cannot be known for sure; no new survey numbers can be published in the two weeks before Italian elections.
Europe is concerned. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned Italiansagainst electiong il Cavaliere. And the British newsmagazine The Economist wrote that "given Mr. Berlusconi's naked advancement of his own interests at the expense of his country's, it is amazing that any Italians still support him."
Still adoration of Berlusconi in Italy remains widespread. In the parallel universe occupied by his followers, there is no room for doubt about Berlusconi and lines are clearly drawn. Silvio is good and the others are bad.
These fans gather at his speeches, like the Saturday rally in Palermo, where thousands crowded into the venerable Teatro Politeama. There were women in long fur coats and fine gentlemen in three-piece suits. Dock workers like Ferrante squeezed with them through the entrance, everyone pushing and shoving each other like adolescents at a rock concert. The hundreds who didn't make it in must stand outside.
Silvio the Savior
Fans of the 76-year-old ex-premier see him as more than just a beacon of hope. "Berlusconi will now start a revolution," says teacher Marinella Romano. She confesses "I have always loved Silvio." Donatella Catalano, a friendly retiree, gushes, "He stands for everything that is good in the world." The unemployed Ferrante says that "only Silvio can save Italy, he will bring us much good."
In this parallel universe, Berlusconi is above all seen as a successful entrepreneur who has created many thousands of jobs. That's what everyone talks about. Sometimes they say his companies have 44,000 employees, other times they say 56,000, but the message is always the same. Berlusconi is a man who can bring wealth.
"Silvio will bring us jobs," says Ferrante, 47, a friendly man with a soft voice. He has two children and has been looking for a job for more than a year. "I was let go the same week that Berlusconi also had to go." Back then, in November 2011, financial markets bet against the sclerotic Berlusconi and economics professor Mario Monti took over as prime minister. Interest rates on Italian bonds fell and confidence in Italy rose, but the poor economy hung around.
Now, Berlusconi blasts his successor for not being able to fight unemployment. From the stage he calls out, "the little professor Monti doesn't understand the economy." From the Palermo bleachers, Giovanni Ferrante smacks his lips as if tasting the words.
Saving the Italians from the Germans
Ferrante explains that over the past year he lost faith in politics. When Berlusconi stepped down, he says, the crisis appeared overpowering. "Now Silvio is back and I believe again," says Ferrante. Pensioner Angelo di Pisa, another follower, sees things similarly. "Once people insulted and slurred Jesus, today they are doing the same with Silvio."
Fully a quarter of Italians are prepared to vote for Berlusconi again. It is an astounding degree of homage paid to man who faces allegations of abuse of power and bribery; who faces the scandal surrounding the underage escort Karima el-Marough, alias Ruby Rubacuori; who has been blasted for blatantly misogynistic comments; and who broke many promises as prime minister. Instead, the opposition, left-leaning judges and even the Germans are blamed for all that is not right with Italy.
"It was Merkel who toppled him," says retiree Catalano, referring to the German chancellor. She then turns to her neighbor and says: "It's better not to tell the man anything, because the Germans always write negatively about Berlusconi." Another voice yells: "First World War II and now attacks against Berlusconi!"
The comments are not surprising. In almost every campaign speech, Berlusconi rails against Germany. "Should we continue to allow Germany to dictate policies that ruin Italy?" he calls out. "Nooooo!" scream his followers. On Monday he told industrial leaders in Monza, a city north of Milan, that Chancellor Angela Merkel is "an East German bureaucrat, who grew up with its centralized economy." Her culture prescribes, he says, an economy with ironclad organization. It would, however, be crazy to impose the rules of austerity on a country that isn't growing, he added.
It's a sentiment often heard by Berlusconi fans wherever he turns up in the crisis-plagued country. "The Germans treat us like their inferiors," snorts pensioner di Pisa in Palermo. He points his index finger in the air and says "and Silvio is the only one, who won't let that happen."
Berlusconi, he says, is an honest man with a big heart and Italians should be happy that he exists. Then di Pisa adds, "why don't you Germans understand that?"
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