Berlusconi rallies supporters as Forza Italia coalition set to take most votes

Alliance led by four-time prime minister likely to fall short of working majority

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Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy, entertained a theatre packed with supporters in Milan on Sunday, a week ahead of a parliamentary election in which his coalition is expected to win the most votes.

During the rally – an unusual event in a campaign so far largely dedicated to TV talkshows – the 81-year-old centre-right leader spoke for more than two hours as about 1,000 fans cheered, clapped and waved the flag of his Forza Italia, or Go Italy, party. “You have a mandate to be missionaries of freedom and democracy this week,” he said, flashing a smile and showing little of the fatigue that has marked his recent appearances.

The coalition, which also includes the eurosceptic League and nationalist Brothers of Italy, was leading in the final polls ahead of the March 4th vote, although it looks likely to fall short of a working majority. The four-time premier cracked a stream of jokes, even on the topic of joblessness, which remains sensitive in a country with one of the lowest employment rates in the euro zone.

He described having read a university study that he said showed technological developments would mean only half the currently employed workforce would be necessary by 2040. “We need to decide whether we all go to the park and look at other people’s babysitters or if we create something new, which would be preferable,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.

Support for Forza Italia has almost halved since 2001, but the party has regained some ground in the past year and was ahead of its main coalition partner, the League, in most polls before a two-week blackout period kicked in.

Numerous legal cases, sex scandals and a ban from office because of a tax-fraud conviction in 2013 have not reduced his personal appeal among diehard fans. “He just gets better. He’s always so endearing,” Vincenza Mattiello, a 43-year-old school worker from near Naples, in southern Italy, who attended Sunday’s event with her son, said. “Even if we don’t see much of him we believe in him.”

Berlusconi has yet to formally announce who his candidate for prime minister would be were Forza Italia to get more votes than its allies, but he said on Sunday that the work of government should be done by people with experience outside politics. “We need to have protagonists of so-called real life in the cabinet,” he said. “Protagonists of business, management, the professions, culture.”

A coalition plan to introduce a flat tax for individuals and firms – a suggestion Berlusconi made while in power but never realised – has been one of the most discussed of the campaign.

Such economic considerations are the main reason to vote Forza Italia, according to Alberto Giovenco, a 34-year-old from Sicily who runs an agricultural company, and watched Sunday’s event on a screen in the lobby of the theatre when seats ran out. “If you cut taxes you can hire young people,” Giovenco said. “Berlusconi is the only one who can really do something. He has experience. He’s a businessman.” – Reuters

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