Berlusconi Leads Polls for April Vote

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Mario Laporta / AFP / Getty Images

Conservative opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, contemplates a return to power as the government of Romano Prodi verges on collapse.

In Italian politics, turning everything on its head is the preferred method for keeping everything standing in place. Just 21 months after Romano Prodi knocked Silvio Berlusconi out of the Prime Minister's office, Italy is once again heading toward elections. And who do polls say will be the next Prime Minister? Silvio Berlusconi, of course.

Following yet another government crisis — and Senate President Franco Marini's failed, five-day attempt to establish a temporary ruling coalition to usher in much-needed electoral reform — the Italian Parliament is expected to be dissolved on Wednesday, and national elections scheduled in April. Though his allies have insisted for the past two years that it's time for new leadership on the Italian center-right, Berlusconi will again be its candidate, for the fifth time in 14 years (with two wins, two losses under his belt). Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who once served as Prodi's No. 2, is expected to lead the center-left.

Berlusconi's lead in voter surveys says more about dissatisfaction with his opponents than any widespread hope that the once maverick leader will be able to lift Italy out of what all now acknowledge is a nationwide funk. Indeed, with Italians set to vote under the old electoral law, whoever wins will almost certainly encounter the same problems Prodi did in governing effectively and keeping his coalition from crumbling. Some say the best hope is a virtual tie, which would force a "grande coalizione" composed of major parties from both sides.

Still, the looming Berlusconi-Veltroni showdown does have the virtue of presenting a stark contrast between two very different politicians. The 71-year-old center-right leader hails from the industrial north, having made his mark as a real estate mogul and media entrepreneur, and becoming Italy's richest man. Berlusconi came into politics in 1994 billed as the ultimate outsider, scoffing at Rome's stuffy establishment and passing his downtime singing Neapolitan love ballads and frequenting his palatial villa in Sardinia's Porto Cervo. His refusal to resolve a gargantuan conflict of interest, as owner of Italy's three main private television stations, made him controversial. So too did his frequent gaffes, unintended and otherwise, including telling Wall Street executives that Italy was worthy of investment for the beauty of its secretaries and calling a German politician "pefect for the part" of a Nazi prison guard in an upcoming film.

Veltroni, 52, on the other hand, is a lifelong politico who talks about Italy's need to be "reasonable" and "pragmatic." He was Vice Premier in Prodi's first government from 1996 to 1998, before moving over to run the capital. Pale and bespectacled, next to the ever-tan, ever-spiffy Berlusconi, the Rome mayor has high-culture tendencies and a book-writing hobby; he has written an earnest novel and a biography of a little-known jazz musician. Veltroni even gets a mention in Ian McEwan's best-selling novel Saturday.

Still, despite the apparent differences, the two rivals are essentially cut from the same political cloth. Unlike the plodding technocrats like Prodi who have often led Italy, both Berlusconi and Veltroni are persuasive orators with a populist touch and a nose for how to use the mass media. Berlusconi will be able to make the case that the center-left blew their chance to lead, stumbling and splintering into Italian politics-as-usual. He will ask for yet another chance to remake Italy in his image of success. Veltroni will respond that it is the center-right that is offering the been-there, seen-that candidate; and that at nearly 20 years younger, he is the choice for "change." The bad news for Italy is that whether things change or not, they seem to always remain the same.