Why scandal-tinged Berlusconi still beloved of many Italians

Fri Dec 21, 2012 7:10am EST
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By Naomi O'Leary

ROME (Reuters) - They call themselves "the club". A doctor, a business-owner, pensioners and engineers - united by their support for one of Europe's most controversial politicians, Silvio Berlusconi.

"We are all Berlusconiani. We do not want Monti. We don't want someone who takes orders from Brussels," said teacher Annalisa Lillo, 49, in the Rome antiques shop where the club meets to discuss politics in the evenings.

Outsiders might struggle to understand the continued appeal of the four-time, scandal-ridden prime minister, driven from office a year ago at the height of Italy's economic crisis.

But while support for his People of Freedom party is half what it once was, it still commands 16.5 percent and remains a formidable player as Italy prepares for elections in February.

Fuelled by cake and glasses of sparkling wine, members lobby politicians, attend pro-Berlusconi rallies and scrub off anti-Berlusconi graffiti in the neighborhood where they meet.

On one evening, about 20 men and women between 25 and 75 sat in a circle on assorted antique furniture discussing Berlusconi's return to the leadership of the PDL.

"He knows the pulse of Italians," said 39-year old engineer Alessio Brugnoli. "Berlusconi is the obligatory choice."

THAT OLD MAGIC   Continued...

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a meeting of the European People's Party (EPP), ahead of a two-day European Union leaders summit, in Brussels December 13, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Vidal