It was perhaps the most outlandish appearance of the campaign. Late at night on a public television station, an aged man came on looking as though he had just stepped out of a Madam Tussauds wax museum, his similarity to the embalmed Mao Zedong difficult to ignore. He read out a personal statement from a sheet of paper. The anchor standing devoutly next to him was hardly any younger.
The old man ceremoniously proclaimed the title: "Commitment to the Italians," followed by 90 seconds of vainglorious blustering. Then came the pledge: "Following the certain victory of the center-right parties in the March 4 election, I will create jobs together with the prime minister. My goal is to bring the unemployment rate below the EU average during the legislative period. Signed: Silvio Berlusconi."
The jobless rate in the European Union is 7.3 percent, while it is 10.8 percent in Italy. But Berlusconi radiated confidence. He had, after all, just repeated one of his greatest coups: Seventeen years earlier, at that same desk, in the presence of that same anchor, he had introduced his grab-bag of promises called "Contract with the Italians." That grotesque televised deal with the people contributed significantly to Berlusconi's return to the office of prime minister.
It's as if time has stood still in Italy. Just recently, it seemed inconceivable that a man who served as prime minister four times and who - in addition to turning his country into the butt of myriad jokes - almost bankrupted Italy would once again be speaking of his political future at the ripe old age of 82.
In 2013, Berlusconi was found guilty of tax evasion and had to resort to legal sleight of hand to narrowly avoid additional convictions for abuse of office and for paying for sex with an underage prostitute. He also isn't allowed to run for office himself on March 4; due to his conviction, he is banned from seeking public office until 2019. Despite all that, however, the center-right alliance Berlusconi leads - which includes, in addition to his own Forza Italia party, the far-right Lega Nord and the further-right Fratelli d'Italia - has good chances of emerging victorious from the approaching election.
If the right doesn't end up with a majority, political gridlock could be the result, with three blocks of roughly equal strength standing face-to-face. March 4 isn't just a fateful election for the future of Italy. The future of the EU is also dependent on which direction the eurozone's third-largest economy chooses to take. And there is cause for concern: A trip through Italy this winter, including conversations with right-wing agitators in Ventimiglia and evangelists for internet democracy in the deep south, exposes a significant level of rage among the electorate. And resignation.
According to a recent survey, 81 percent of all Italians mistrust the state, with only 5 percent saying they have faith in the country's political parties and in what they say. With just days left before the election, two-thirds of those surveyed said they didn't know, or didn't even want to know, who was running from their electoral district.
It was just four years ago that the young Social Democrat Matteo Renzi became prime minister on the strength of promises to "jettison" the old elite, to rapidly push through delayed reforms and make Italy both more competitive and more influential on the European stage. What went wrong?
Renzi has been out of power since the end of 2016, having left office after losing a referendum over a constitutional reform and falling prey to his own conceit. But he nevertheless managed to enact some change: Following the longest recession since 1945, the country's economy is growing once again. Exports are also on the rise and almost a million jobs have been created, though most of them are of the precarious variety.
But the societal rifts grew deeper during the crisis and 8.4 million Italians are poverty stricken, with almost 5 million of those living in "absolute poverty," denoting the inability to buy goods and services "essential to avoid grave forms of social exclusion," according to the country's statistics office. In addition, the country faces an ongoing exodus of the well-educated combined with a continuing influx of migrants who see Italy as the gateway to Europe. Since 2014, 625,000 of them have arrived.
The population's anger is on the rise. And that anger is being reflected on the campaign trail.
A Visit to the Front Lines of Populism
Signs for the highway heading to Nice, France, are posted along Via Tenda in the border city of Ventimiglia - and hundreds of refugees, almost exclusively Africans who have refused to be registered, are camped beneath the arterial, which runs along an overpass.
They would rather sleep out in the open along the river banks. At night, they huddle beneath blankets and tarps while during the day, they are constantly on the move, their mobile phones clutched tightly in their hands. They pay no attention to the complaints of the local residents, who bemoan the "intolerable conditions" in their street.
An appearance by Matteo Salvini is scheduled for 4 p.m. Salvini is head of the far-right party Lega Nord, which now simply calls itself "Lega," a consequence of its new effort to attract voters in southern Italy as well. It is, after all, the south that has been most affected by the arrival of the migrants - or, as Salvini calls them, the "do-nothings." He is a brawny, coarse firebrand who allies with Marine Le Pen, of the French right-wing party Front National, in European Parliament. He hopes to govern together with Berlusconi in Rome.
Prior to his arrival in Ventimiglia, Salvini announces that he won't be visiting the refugee camp along the river banks after all - "to avoid instigation." The mood in the city is tense enough as it is. At midday, a Romanian man assaulted the wife of a city hall employee in the city center. "Bastard," curses the mayor, a Social Democrat. "I'm afraid Salvini will rake in a lot of votes here."
Shortly after 4 p.m., the Lega head arrives in an overflowing theater in the city and gets right to the point. "When I next return to Ventimiglia as prime minister, there won't be a single illegal immigrant left here," Salvini says. He then promises: "Delinquents will be given a one-way ticket home."
Lega is only at 11 percent in the polls, but that hasn't slowed the party, which is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia. Under his leadership, Salvini promises, Italy would no longer adhere to European Union laws that do not conform to the country's interests. And he blusters: "We are taking back our country where 1,000 lira used to be worth 1,000 lira and there was no currency that only served the interests of German banks."
It is, in fact, their competing approaches to the EU that shows just how fragile is the alliance formed by Salvini and the pro-European Berlusconi. They aren't connected by much more than a desire for power. The term "center-right block" also glosses over the fact that the post-fascists from Fratelli d'Italia are also part of the alliance. According to the country's complicated new election law, 40 percent of the vote is necessary for an absolute majority in parliament. According to the polls, the right is currently five percentage points short of that mark. It also isn't clear who would become prime minister if Berlusconi's alliance won, though there are indications that it could ultimately be Antonio Tajani, current president of the European Parliament and a member of Berlusconi's party.
And then there is the persistent rumor that Berlusconi, during a January visit to Brussels, promised leading Christian Democrats that he would not govern together in a coalition with Salvini's Lega. Instead, he could help Renzi's Social Democrats to a majority just as he did in 2014. That would help explain the praise heaped upon Berlusconi following the trip to the EU capital. The meeting with Berlusconi was "excellent," proclaimed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the time.
Campaign of Illusionists
It has been a confusing campaign. There are no signs lining the streets. No televised debates between the candidates. Newspapers, meanwhile, are running squalid stories about candidates who have stolen, committed fraud or abused their wives.
It is a campaign of illusionists: Berlusconi speaks as though he was once again going to head the government, though he is forbidden from running. Salvini is acting as the future prime minister, but polls show he doesn't stand a chance. And Renzi is leading the Social Democrats into the election but is seen as being washed up. Behind him, incumbent Paolo Gentiloni is quietly standing by, Italy's most trusted politician, according to the polls.
And then there is Luigi Di Maio. The 31-year-young lead candidate for Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), the Five Star Movement, currently stands at 28 percent in the polls, putting his party ahead of all other single parties. That would be reason enough to claim the office of prime minister - if not for the dogma from the founding years of this protest movement which prohibits the formation of coalitions.
When asked how he intends to create a majority, Di Maio dodges and weaves. Backstage after a well-received speech in the Sannazzaro Theater in Naples, the leading figure of Five Star is as self-controlled and good looking as always. "If we don't end up with an absolute majority following the election, then we'll just have to call on all political forces to find common ground on the issues," Di Maio says. "If there is willingness to do so, we can then draft a program for the 18th legislative period."
That's how he talks these days. Like someone with a heavy weight shackled to his ankle.
From the very beginning, M5S has subjected itself to a strict set of rules. They were established by the party's founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, and the ideologue Gianroberto Casaleggio. Party members are only allowed a maximum of two terms in office, half of their parliamentary salaries must be donated to charity, they aren't allowed to appear on talk shows, coalitions are to be avoided, and members will be thrown out of the party if they run into even the slightest trouble with the law.
Not all of these rules still apply. With M5S members holding power in 45 city halls in the country, the party hasn't just come closer to power, but also to reality. That, though, has meant that the erstwhile revolutionaries in Italian politics are now subject to merciless criticism in the media, and Luigi Di Maio, the head of the party, absorbs most of it.
Hardly a day goes by in which he doesn't have to comment on yet another misstep made by a fellow party member. Even just among the party's candidates for the two houses of parliament, 14 have been found who have transgressed internal party rules on salaries. But voter support for M5S has remained stable. For Di Maio's speech in Naples, the audience was filled with social workers and teachers, but also owners of mid-sized companies who are unable to get loans from country's ailing banks. People, in other words, who are unable to clear the hurdles they are constantly confronted with in daily life in Italy.
If M5S was merely a "Noah's ark of frauds, scroungers and freemasons," as Renzi would have it, the public opinion surveys would surely look different. Di Maio intends to present his desired cabinet in the coming days. And he is no longer talking about holding a referendum on Italy's eurozone membership, as he was just a short time ago. Instead, he is praising "our European house."
Meanwhile, Matteo Renzi hasn't really changed one bit. Neither in physical appearance nor in speaking style. He is still combative and intractable. But after three years in power, Renzi has managed to fall all the way back in the polls to a position behind the right-wing populist Salvini. The left-wing of his Social Democrats has split off and support for the party has almost halved since 2014. Why should people vote for him again?
"Because we are the only ones who aren't deceiving the voters with unrealistic promises," Renzi says smiling. And it is true that the bombast is greater elsewhere. Berlusconi is promising radical tax cuts, minimum pensions of 1,000 euros per month and tax immunity for companies that employ young Italians. Salvini is pledging the reintroduction of early retirement. And M5S is offering an unconditional basic income of 780 euros per month for all and a package of family benefits worth 17 billion euros.
Yet everyone knows that Italy currently holds 2.29 trillion euros in sovereign debt, the equivalent of 132 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Only Greece is in worse shape in Europe.
It remains unclear if Renzi wants to become prime minister again himself. There are increasing indications that the understated incumbent Gentiloni could remain in office - assuming the center-right camp fails to achieve an absolute majority.
What is clear, though, is that no government can be formed without Berlusconi's approval. And the ex-prime minister is even prepared should months of gridlock ensue in the wake of the March 4 vote, with coalition talks, maneuvering and side deals.
When it comes to scheming, after all, there is nobody better.