Berlusconi's popularity rises at end of a bad year

19:25, December 21, 2009      

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It's been a bad year for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, not least because he was attacked recently leaving the leader bloodied and nursing a broken nose and some cracked teeth.

But the attack has actually boosted the prime minister's popularity rating. Public support for Silvio Berlusconi dropped earlier in the year after he was plagued by a number of scandals. In July a poll showed his popularity had fallen below the 50 percent mark for the first time since his election in April 2008.

He has fought off accusations of corruption and survived a stream of verbal gaffes, but in June it was sleaze that was threatening to topple the formerly unassailable Silvio Berlusconi. There was an unstoppable torrent of allegations about the procurement of high-class call girls for private parties at two of the Italian prime minister's luxury homes and nearly two months of claims and counter-claims about his involvement with an 18-year-old underwear model.

By September his wife declared she had had enough. Veronica Lario said that their 20-year marriage was over and that she was also sick of seeing him make a fool of himself on the world stage.

By September Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's wife declared she had had enough. Veronica Lario said that their 20-year marriage was over and that she was also sick of seeing him make a fool of himself on the world stage.(Photo: China Daily, File Photo)

"I can no longer stop him from making himself look ridiculous in front of the world," she said. "I've reached the end of the line. Ten years ago I wasn't ready, but today I can say with my head held high: 'I'm separating from this man'. It is he who has put me in this position. I could have gone on for years, but like this it's impossible."

Last weeks incident has seemed to lift the prime minister's public image however. An opinion poll published in the Corriere della Sera newspaper said the aggression had boosted Berlusconi's popularity to 55.9 percent, compared with 48.6 percent in mid-November.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (C) reacts after being assaulted in Milan. Berlusconi was rushed to hospital after a man with a history of mental problems attacked him, knocking out two of his teeth, following a political rally in Milan Sunday. (Xinhua/AFP Photo)

The rise in popularity was most evident among young voters and even practicing Catholics. But Berlusconi's approval rating improved even among centre-left voters, with 17 percent giving a positive opinion.

A handcraft artist makes dolls in the likeness of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with bleeding nose and mouth in Naples, Italy, December 15, 2009.(Xinhua/AFP Photo)

The attack against Berlusconi, 73, shocked many Italians and drew comparisons to the dark years of political violence that bloodied the country in the 1970s and 1980s. The attacker had a history of mental illness and no links to any political movement, but Berlusconi's allies have blamed the assault on a climate of hatred and mud-slinging against the prime minister.

While the foreign press and one or two Italian newspapers from the centre-left of the political spectrum have fulminated at Berlusconi's fondness for young women, portraying him as a philandering Emperor Nero who fiddles as Italy's economy burns, Berlusconi has accused them of failing to understand Italians.

Some political observers agree. "Italy has been the anomaly in Europe for a long time," says Professor James Walston, of Rome's American University. "There's disrespect for law in large areas of society. For many Italians, what Berlusconi has done is admirable."

Politicians from across the spectrum have expressed their solidarity to Berlusconi since the attack but Italy remains polarized in its attitude towards the media tycoon. Scandals surrounding him refuse to go away though. This month, a mafia hitman-turned-witness linked him to a 1993 mafia bombing campaign, although another mobster has cast doubt on that testimony. Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing and has blamed "communist" magistrates and leftist media for the accusations against him.

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