Berlusconi Rides Monte Paschi Scandal, Balotelli Signing to Surge

Striker Mario Balotelli of football club AC Milan

Photograph by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Striker Mario Balotelli of football club AC Milan

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has cut the lead of front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani to 5 percentage points in the countdown to Italian parliamentary elections Feb. 24-25. Berlusconi is tapping into public anger over a banking scandal at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA (BMPS:IM) and soaking up the popular adulation over the signing of striker Mario Balotelli to Berlusconi’s Milan soccer team.

Berlusconi’s bloc gained to 27.8 percent, picking up 1.1 percentage points in a week, acccording to an SWG poll released Feb. 1. Bersani’s forces slipped 1.6 points to 32.8 percent. The three-time premier has cut Bersani’s lead in half in a month and he may soon be entering in the margin-of-error territory. The jump in the polls is reviving memories of 2006, when he trailed by about 5 points going into the elections, only to lose by a 10th of a percent.

Revelations that Banca Monte Paschi hid details of structured finance deals that may produce hundreds of millions of euros in losses is embroiling everyone from Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, while providing fodder for Berlusconi to slam his rivals in attacks that are fueling his comeback.

Berlusconi also got a bounce from Milan signing Balotelli, the 22-year-old striker who scored 20 goals this season for Manchester City and was a hero in Italy’s run to the finals of the European Championship. The 20 million pounds that Milan reportedly paid for Balotelli will seem like chump change to the billionaire Berlusconi if he pulls off an election upset. Berlusconi got some quick dividends when Balotelli scored two goals in his first game to lead Milan to victory over Udinese. Roberto Weber, chairman of pollster SWG, said last week the signing probably added about 0.3 percentage point to Berlusconi’s support in the week.

The three-time premier’s jump in the polls didn’t seem to be hurt by his comments on Holocaust Remembrance Day last weekend, when he praised Fascists dictator Benito Mussolini for “doing a lot of good things.” The remarks prompted headlines and condemnation from around the world, but his supporters seem to have taken it in stride.

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