C'mon Let's Cruise

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Paolo Bonaiuti, spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi, has started to squirm. His boss is listing his accomplishments in construction, in the media and in sports, and Bonaiuti knows what's coming next: his boss is about to crown himself king in front of a crowd of largely hostile journalists. And so he does, using the royal habit of speaking in the third person. "Mr. Berlusconi has clout that's probably unmatched by any other European," the leader of Forza Italia says of himself. "He constructed an empire." Could it be that Berlusconi is becoming a bit bumptious? Not at all, he protests. "Decent people understand me and vote for me." In other words, it really doesn't matter what the press thinks. Six years after he was ousted as Prime Minister, four years after his Freedom Alliance narrowly lost to Romano Prodi's Olive Tree coalition, and a year and a half after his arch enemy, Massimo D'Alema, took Prodi's job as Prime Minister, Berlusconi is back with a bang.

It scarcely matters that next Sunday's elections are merely for the office of President in 15 regional governments. Both D'Alema's ruling center-left government and the opposition, led by Berlusconi, know this is a test run for the general elections early next year. Which is why Berlusconi is pushing out the boat--literally. Last week, at a cost of $1.4 million, he set off on a campaign cruise around Italy from Genoa to Venice in the good ship Excellent to launch his campaign. Berlusconi claims the cruise campaign was the result of a new law severely limiting campaign advertising on television and radio which has nullified the advantage he has derived in the past from his ownership of three TV networks. But it was an inspired gambit. The hundred or so journalists invited on board became a captive audience and Berlusconi, a former cruise ship crooner, lost no time singing his own praises to them.

Back on shore D'Alema could only fume at his adversary's seaborne antics. "He's great and rich and we are miserable failures," D'Alema complained, deriding what he termed his opponent's mania of greatness. But the flamboyance of the one and the flatfootedness of the other mirror the image of their respective parties.

D'Alema, when he's not acerbic, is just as bland as the party he helped create from the ruins of the Communist Party in which he grew up as an apparatchik. Berlusconi, on the other hand, exudes all the self-confidence of a self-made man, and appears arrogant to anyone suspicious of wealth, which means most of the left and center-left in Italy. But the man who built the $40 billion Fininvest company makes no excuses. "A man is what he's done," he says. "That's why I'm tired of being measured against these people who have never done anything in their lives. Just talk. The only thing they know is politics."

The opposition's most telling criticism of the D'Alema government is that it is the product of a deal that was patched together through shrewd horse trading after Prodi fell, and doesn't reflect the will of the electorate. Because D'Alema has not gone head to head with the opposition at the polls, since Prodi was the lead candidate for the center-left in the 1996 elections before going to Brussels to head the European Commission, the regional elections will serve as a kind of referendum on D'Alema's government. "We'll be taking the pulse of the country," says Berlusconi adviser Antonio Marzano, an economics professor.

Forza Italia has already put its finger on one populist fear, proposing--along with Umberto Bossi's Northern League--tough anti-immigration legislation. While many of Bossi's followers are xenophobes, and Northern League deputies have publicly praised Austria's Jörg Haider, Berlusconi claims he is simply trying to stem an uncontrollable influx, especially from nearby Albania. For Sunday's elections, Berlusconi and Bossi have made an alliance for six northern regions, although critics immediately recalled the results of their last pact, the fall of Berlusconi's government when Bossi pulled out of the coalition.

There are no great differences between the two main coalitions, with both promising more jobs, more secure pensions and safer cities. But Berlusconi and D'Alema have transformed their rivalry into a battle of epic proportions, with polls showing the center-left taking as many as nine of the 15 regions. The cruise initiative gave the opposition a boost at least in terms of publicity, though Berlusconi's knack for self-promotion may well carry the seeds of his own defeat. Perhaps thinking he was back at his old job as a cruise ship entertainer, he told a tasteless joke about an aids cure to a couple of journalists. The gaffe was soon all over the papers "It's a chilling joke," commented Walter Veltroni, head of the Democrats of the Left. "It demonstrates the distance there is between the world here, and the one on that ship." For different reasons, Berlusconi would be the first to agree with the former communist Veltroni that they are, indeed, a world apart.