Italy will get by even if Silvio Berlusconi becomes
prime minister again, the country's leading sociologist said Friday,
presenting an annual report in which he praised Italians'
"extraordinary" resilience to the economic crisis.
"Who rules us is secondary. I could even say: 'We will survive everything'," Giuseppe De Rita, president of CENSIS, Italy's top research institute, said of latest reports indicating that Berlusconi was about to regain control of Italy's conservative camp.
Berlusconi, 76, entered politics in 1994 after a career in real estate, publishing and TV broadcasting. He has been prime minister three times, but his rule has been marked by conflict of interest issues, corruption, sex scandals and international gaffes.
Many Italians, tired of the endless controversy and the deteriorating state of the economy, had celebrated his departure a year ago.
In a front page editorial, Corriere della Sera, the country's most respected daily, warned that a Berlusconi comeback, likely based on an anti-austerity, eurosceptic campaign message, would "question again Italy's newfound credibility."
In October Berlusconi said he would step back and let his party, the People of Freedom (PDL), hold primary elections to select a new prime ministerial candidate. But on Thursday, PDL secretary Angelino Alfano said he "wanted to come back as a protagonist."
"The dark times can return, some people are already expecting them in today's papers," De Rita said, noting how several commentators had worried about the risk index on Italian public debt increasing following the Berlusconi announcement.
A Demos poll conducted earlier in the week and published Friday by the centre-left daily La Repubblica, showed that Berlusconi was still the favourite for centre-right voters. But it also indicated that the PDL would badly lose the elections, which are due in the spring.
However, the billionaire-turned-politician is an effective - at times populist - campaigner, who has often beaten the odds against him. Some observers think he could at least manage to deny the rival centre-left camp a clear majority in the upper house of parliament.
When he resigned in late 2011, weakened by parliamentary defections, Berlusconi left a technocratic government led by non-partisan economist Mario Monti the task to stave off national bankruptcy through tough austerity measures.
Monti forced Italians to pay a hefty property tax, accept more permissive job dismissal laws and work for much longer to qualify for a pension - amid a worsening recession and spiking unemployment.
Despite widespread resentment against the austerity reforms, public protests in Italy have not reached the same scale or level of those seen in Greece or Spain.
"The way (Italian society) responded over the last year has been absolutely extraordinary," De Rita said. "I continue to be surprised by the fact that this country complied with the need to put its house in order."
CENSIS said that consumption has shrunk to 1997 levels, while 18 per cent of households do not earn enough to cover their bills. Crime is up 5.4 per cent from 2011, with the sharpest increases registered for robberies and burglaries.
People are adjusting to the tough times through self-reliance strategies like growing their own food, subletting their homes to tourists and using bicycles instead of cars, the Rome-based institute said.
Underscoring that the crisis was affecting all of Italy, not just its empoverished southern regions, CENSIS listed three northern provinces among those which had most suffered since 2008: Prato in Tuscany, Varese and Lecco in Lombardy. Naples topped the list.
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