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.”
One poll showed PDL support rose three points in the week after he announced his candidacy, proving there is life in the old man yet and it would be rash to underestimate him.
“Berlusconi is an unusual politician. He’s a businessman. He’s not in politics to claim expenses and get an official car. He lives, works to help businesses,” pensioner Augusto Senesi said. “You cannot say he damaged the country.”
The media mogul’s campaign began in earnest this week when he rallied his ample resources to fill the airwaves with the time-worn tenets of his sales pitch: anti-tax, pro-business, and anti-communist.
He is making the most of the fact that on Monday, Italians had to pay a hated property tax re-introduced by Monti’s government. Berlusconi has promised to cancel it.
He illustrated what he sees as a communist threat in an interview on Sunday with a story about a Soviet Union family massacred to force them to reveal the whereabouts of a bishop.
This might seem odd to those outside Italy but it emphasized the Marxist origins of much of the country’s political left and deftly played on old fears among his conservative voters.
His enormous media control ensures that his point of view - for example, that the many court cases against him stem from a left-wing judicial conspiracy - get substantial airing.
But, as it did in the Arab Spring protests, new media are becoming an unfettered forum for alternative views in Italy.
After a microphone picked up Berlusconi instructing his interviewer what question to ask next, thousands of mocking Tweets kept the journalist’s name trending on Twitter.
On one issue the club is unanimous: that the replacement of Berlusconi with the Monti government was a coup d‘etat by nebulous forces in Brussels and possibly orchestrated with the deliberate collusion of financial markets.
“Berlusconi was democratically elected. This has been a dark phase of democracy. Twelve months of horror. Europe set us up,” said 34-year-old engineer Marco Ajello.
Berlusconi insists he supports a strong pan-European foreign policy, but he intersperses those claims with tirades against “German-imposed austerity” and the “rigging” of the European Union to favor northern member countries.
“Look, if you add it up, over the last 10 years Italy has lost out from the euro,” engineer Ajello said.
Berlusconi had said he would withdraw to support Monti if he ran at the head of coalition of the centre-right and moderates.
Yet this thought horrifies the club, who believe the PDL lost support because it cooperated with Monti - the darling of the international financial community - for too long.
As Italy awaits Monti’s decision on whether he will run, expected this weekend, polls show he commands much more support among leftist voters than on the right.
He could split the main centre-left Democratic Party’s (PD) dominant voting bloc of more than 30 percent, says James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome.
Berlusconi is now on trial on charges of paying for sex with an minor during one of the so-called “Bunga Bunga” parties at his plush residences.
He has denied any wrongdoing in that case and in others where he has been accused of corruption and tax fraud, decrying what he says is a politically motivated war against him by leftist magistrates.
Many Italians do not believe him. But as far as the zealots of “the club” are concerned, he is preaching to the converted.
Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Philip Pullella/Mark Heinrich