Silvio Berlusconi takes fight for survival to Italy’s beaches

Silvio Berlusconi
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Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party is launching a nationwide summer campaign, in an effort to revitalize support for the group and its founder, sentenced for tax fraud by Italy's Supreme Court earlier this month.

Though pledging his support to the coalition government led by Enrico Letta, Mr Berlusconi's People of Liberty (PDL) is in the final stages of organizing a vigorous operation that resembles an electoral campaign.

"It will certainly be innovative," Renato Brunetta, leader of the PDL in the lower chamber, tells the Financial Times, reluctant to unveil details of their plans, claiming "it will be a surprise". He adds: "In democracy and in love, everything is legitimate."

In the next days, volunteers for the PDL are expected to distribute political pamphlets across Italy's most popular beaches, on the island of Sardinia, in the resorts of Liguria and Tuscany and on the Amalfi coast, in what some commentators have dubbed "the freedom tour".

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The party will be collecting signatures for a referendum promoting reform of the Italian justice system, initially sponsored by the Radical party. The six-point petition aims, among other goals, to introduce civil responsibility for magistrates and speed up the duration of trials.

According to Il Giornale, a daily paper owned by the former prime minister's family, the campaign envisages a "sky attack" with aircraft trailing banners in support of Mr Berlusconi.

At the heart of the campaign would be the relaunch of the center-right party under the original name of Forza Italia (Go Italy), first founded by Mr Berlusconi in December 1993.

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The operation comes at a precarious stage for Mr Letta's executive, whose survival rests upon cohesion between his Democratic party and Mr Berlusconi's centre-right group.

"Back on the field for Italy – Go Italy!" read eye-catching posters that have already cropped up in some cities in northern Italy, and will also be put up in key train stations.

"Contrary to the (leftwing), that has simply changed its name over the years, we will return to our origins, with a great mass liberal party," explains Mr Brunetta, without giving further details on the structure or the program of the new Forza Italia.

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No party meetings are scheduled over the next few days. MPs from the PDL are on a short break, but have been asked to send the new slogans and adverts to their personal mailing lists, mobilizing supporters behind Mr Berlusconi.

Although an immediate government crisis after the Berlusconi final appeal verdict was averted, great turmoil has stemmed from the Supreme Court judgment on Mr Berlusconi's tax fraud on August 1, with members of the two governing parties embarking on daily disputes and fueling speculation over early elections.

"It is typical of Berlusconi, an able politician and political poker player who is keeping a spectrum of possibilities open and is preparing an important campaign on public opinion, exploiting the recent condemnation to his advantage," says Giovanni Orsina, professor of political studies at Luiss university in Rome.

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"Forza Italia works perfectly, it incarnates Berlusconi's original spirit at its best. The PDL never really took off and has always remained suspended in limbo," he adds, before pointing out that "precisely what the new Forza Italia is" is not yet known.

Mr Letta has repeatedly given assurances of the unity of his coalition and has endeavored to press on with the government's planned economic and social reforms.

A senate commission has initiated a procedure to bar Mr Berlusconi from being a senator and running for election for at least six years, as a consequence of his conviction, but a final vote is not expected until October.