Berlusconi marshals troops for charm offensive

 

"If you go into a public toilet and you find it is dirty, then clean it up. Otherwise, whoever comes in after you will think that you have dirtied it."

This was just one of many nuggets of electioneering advice offered last week by the centre-right opposition leader, the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, to candidates from his own "company-party", Forza Italia, due to stand in next month's regional elections.

At first glance, Mr Berlusconi's "commandments" on how to be an effective candidate might seem like the crass interference of a control freak. In reality, however, he was probably showing, and not for the first time, that no one in Italy understands better than he how to interpret and influence the mood, concerns and anxieties of popular opinion.

Mr Berlusconi is nothing if not a remarkable communicator. Affable and charming on a one-to-one basis, he is the sort of politician with whom you could imagine yourself having a lot of fun over the dinner table.

However, he believes (and recent opinion polls would encourage that belief) that his personal charm and credibility will be enough not only to see the centre-right do well in next month's regional elections but, more importantly, set it up for a general election triumph next year.

Make no mistake, Mr Berlusconi and Forza Italia will be leaving nothing to chance in their regional election campaign. At a meeting in Milan last week, he provided his candidates with a kit which comprised not only Forza Italia ties, flags and cravats but also the "correct" sunglasses and wristwatch to wear while campaigning.

Perhaps more significantly, Mr Berlusconi not only provided his candidates with a book of his own speeches, L'Italia Che Ho In Mente, "The Italy I have in mind", but also used the gathering to outline some fundamental rules about electioneering in a modern democracy.

For a start, if a controversial or difficult subject comes up, then ease your way around it. If candidates are asked about abortion or divorce, they should "pretend not to hear" because to take sides one way or the other could cost votes.

Candidates were urged to "remember names", to find something complimentary such as "Nice tie" or "What a lovely smile" to say when shaking hands at election rallies. Mr Berlusconi even reminded his candidates about personal hygiene, instructing them to look after their teeth and use mints in order to offset problems of bad breath.

Not only are they to be careful about public toilets, but they must also be sure to carry tissues with them at all times so as to dry their hands and not offer a sticky paw to a potential elector. Candidates were told to study a letter that Forza Italia will be dropping into the post-boxes of Italians over the coming weeks.

Candidates are advised to "study carefully all the important sentences and then learn them off by heart because they have been carefully drafted and redrafted".

Taking up the theme of a series of TV ads that he ran recently on his own three nation-wide commercial channels, the opposition leader told candidates to stress a "them or us" attitude, calling on Italians to take a stand.

Alarmed by Mr Berlusconi's highly effective use of his TV stations the centre-left government last month hastily introduced legislation banning national TV campaign advertising.

Not surprisingly, Mr Berlusconi branded the government-introduced legislation "totally undemocratic" and aimed at silencing political rivals.

In essence, this addresses the thorny matter of the conflict of interest between serving in public office (i.e. prime minister) and having public or private entrepreneurial interests. Who could we be talking about? Mr Berlusconi, of course, whose Fininvest group remains one of the most powerful in the land.

The fact that this alleged "conflict of interest" has applied to Mr Berlusconi right from the February 1994 day he "took to the pitch" and has in the meantime not greatly exercised the minds and energies of the centre-left does not seem to embarrass the latter. We are now heading into election year, and when it comes to elections, we all know who does it best, thanks to his TV channels, ties, wristwatches, pamphlets and instructions alike.

Denied the use of the TV screen, Mr Berlusconi confessed amiably last week that most of his party's advertising would contain "my own face" since opinion polls have shown that to be the most effective vote-winner. In the meantime, Forza Italia seems poised to stage a highly effective campaign that will feature posters, aircraft, 120 cars and even a ship, all of which will tour Italy complete with electoral slogans.

At the end of the day, and for a variety of reasons, all of Forza Italia's efforts may not change the situation in the regions next month where the current division of nine to the centre-left and six to the centre-right could well be repeated. Next month's electoral efforts, however, will represent an interesting test run in view of next year's general election.

It could well be that when Mr Berlusconi claims that recent, secret opinion polls carried out by his advisers show Forza Italia with an astonishing 35 per cent vote (the party picked up 20.6 per cent in 1996), he is not bluffing. At this stage, long odds against a Berlusconi win next year are not available at your local bookmaker.