Silvio Berlusconi has little chance of winning next
month's Italian elections, a top expert says - but after renewing an
alliance with a key ally, he may spoil the party for his centre-left
rivals and offer a backhand favour to his successor Mario Monti.
Engaged in a relentless media campaign that sees him on TV or radio practically every day, the 76-year-old media mogul claims his centre-right coalition has regained 10 percentage points over the past three weeks.
But surveys indicate that the Democratic Party (PD) and its leftist allies are far ahead on 40 per cent, while Berlusconi's camp is trailing on 25 per cent and Monti's centrist coalition lags further behind on 15 per cent.
Berlusconi has "zero" chance of coming out on top in the February 24-25 contest, Roberto D'Alimonte, one of Italy's most senior political scientists, told dpa. "Berlusconi is going to play the role of the spoiler," he predicted.
That can be made possible by the intricacies of Italy's electoral law, which allocates extra seats to the winning single party or coalition, but under different rules between the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, and the Senate.
In the Chamber, a 55-per-cent share of the seats is reserved for the winner of the national vote, a prize the centre-left is expected to scoop up easily.
But in the Senate, the "majority premium" is allocated regionally, meaning that the PD and its allies would have to come out on top in big regions which have traditionally been conservative bastions, such as Lombardy, to obtain an overall majority.
That task has been made harder by Monday's announcement of a new alliance between Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party and the Northern League, an anti-immigrant and anti-Europe party rooted in Italy's wealthier northern regions.
As a price, Berlusconi accepted Northern League demands that he should not again bid for high office, but only lead the centre-right in campaigning. The three-times premier suggested he could serve instead as economy minister.
"You only need the PD to lose in Lombardy and another (northern) region, for example Veneto - which is a possibility after the PDL-League agreement - for it not to have an overall majority in the Senate," D'Alimonte warned.
Lombardy has already been dubbed "Italy's Ohio," after the key battleground state in US presidential elections. According to a poll D'Alimonte published Tuesday on Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, the PD- and the PDL-led camps are neck-and-neck there on 32.5 per cent.
The centre-left may also have difficulty winning Campania, the region around Naples, because of competition from a new party founded by anti-mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia. "I was surprised to see it on over 10 per cent," D'Alimonte told dpa.
A hung Senate would likely force PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani to enter into a coalition with Monti, who is running as the leader of a centrist coalition which is currently attracting 15 per cent of votes in the polls.
So while making life harder for Bersani, Berlusconi may end up making it easier for Monti, a man he relentlessly blames for Italy's record unemployment and severe recession, giving him the chance to play the kingmaker role.
Monti, formerly a non-partisan economist, has enjoyed only a moderate surge in support since formally entering the election race two weeks ago. "He started late and badly. He's a very fine person but he is not a political leader," D'Alimonte commented.
Given the ideological differences between the liberal-minded Monti and Nichi Vendola, Bersani's radical left ally, a new coalition government could fall victim to the internal bickering that has plagued past Italian centre-left administrations.
Yet D'Alimonte was optimistic about the chances of compromise, noting for example that both Monti and Vendola favour an assets tax. "I do not think that Vendola will take on the responsibility for the failure of a centre-left government, I do not think he would be that mad," he said.
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