Photo: Wikimedia/Presidenza della Repubblica and Wikimedia/ESMT
Silvio Berlusconi is like the Pied Piper of Hamlin and will lead Italians to disaster if elected for a fourth time at next month’s elections, his challenger Mario Monti has warned.Mr Monti, who is contesting the election as the leader of a centrist coalition, likened the 76-year-old billionaire to “a pied piper who leads the mice to drown in the river”.
He said Mr Berlusconi had “already fooled Italians three times,” a reference to his three terms as prime minister – the last of which came to an end in Nov 2011 when he was forced to resign amid sex scandals and concerns over the mismanagement of Italy’s large public debt.
Mr Monti’s remarks, made on a television current affairs programme on Monday night, marked his most trenchant criticism to date of his predecessor and intensified the antagonism between the two protagonists just weeks ahead of the Feb 24-25 election.
“The sacrifices Italians have made in the last year could be squandered in three or four months if an old, reinvigorated illusionist comes to power,” Mr Monti told the programme, Porta a Porta.
He said that he had believed in Mr Berlusconi when he first entered politics in the early 1990s, promising to bring Thatcherite reforms to Italy’s sclerotic economy, but said that like millions of Italians he had become disillusioned after the media mogul broke so many promises.
Mr Berlusconi hit back on Tuesday, contemptuously dismissing the economics professor and former European Commissioner as “un leaderino” – a little leader.
He accuses Mr Monti of worsening Italy’s recession with higher taxes and tough austerity measures and joked that “he probably even wants to tax my whistle”, an allusion to the pied piper remark.
He suggested that Mr Monti was ramping up the rhetoric because “he is in shock, having seen the latest opinion polls that show that he is a little leader of the centre”.
Despite having recently been convicted of massive tax fraud, and being on trial accused of paying for sex with an alleged under age prostitute, Mr Berlusconi has managed to boost his voter support in the last few days with a series of combative television appearances, one of which was watched by a record nine million Italians.
Support for his conservative People of Freedom party and their coalition partners, the Northern League, has risen from 25 per cent last month to 28 per cent, according to a poll conducted for La7, an independent television channel.
Mr Berlusconi’s supporters said another poll showed that he had narrowed the gap with the centre-Left Democratic Party to just 4.5 points.
He has indicated that should his coalition win, he would drop his ambitions to become prime minister and would settle for being minister for the economy, a position which he claims is more important and wields more power.
The top job would instead go to his protégé, Angelino Alfano, 42, a lawyer who heads the People of Freedom party.
Although the Democratic Party is still ahead in the polls, Mr Berlusconi’s coalition could end up preventing it from having a majority in the Senate, with the ability to block legislation and to destabilise the new government.
Mr Berlusconi claimed that he is concerned for his safety, three years after a man with a history of mental illness hurled a figurine of Milan’s cathedral in his face, leaving him bloodied and bruised.
“There is strong concern for me on the part of certain authorities. You know there was an attempt to kill me, and now, with the hatred that is around, those who are responsible for my security escort expressed this concern to me,” he said.
He launched a fresh attack against the legal system, saying that prosecutors in Milan who accuse him of paying for sex with the 17-year-old exotic dancer should themselves be put on trial for “monstrous defamation”.
He said it was “a real scandal” that public money was being used to hold the trial when, he claimed, he had done nothing wrong.
He has consistently denied having sex with the young woman, Karima El Mahroug, and said the bunga bunga parties that she and other starlets have described were in fact “quiet, elegant dinners”.
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