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Foreign observers tuning in to Italy’s election campaign were flabbergasted to learn that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had alternately compared himself, in the space of about a week, to Napoleon, Churchill and Jesus Christ while also vowing to give up sex until after the April poll. But Italians and those who have followed his career closely were less surprised.

Since entering politics in 1994, Mr Berlusconi has commonly referred to himself in the third person as if he were already a historical figure: “If Italy entrusts itself to Berlusconi, it’s the country’s good fortune,” he said at one point. He has perfected a personal style that is a bizarre mix of megalomania, sexual braggadocio, off-colour jokes and outrageous claims, including, among his memorable antics: giving the sign of the horns over the head of the Spanish foreign minister in a group photograph of European leaders and calling a German member of the European parliament a concentration camp kapo. But distant observers should not be fooled by this apparent buffoonery. There is much method in Mr Berlusconi’s madness. By traditional political standards, these would seem to be mistakes. But in Mr Berlusconi’s world of celebrity politics, there is no such thing as bad publicity – it all translates into audience and ratings. And his performance in recent weeks has helped him slash his centre-left opponent’s lead from 8 per cent to close to zero.

Essentially, Mr Berlusconi has transformed Italian life into the world’s longest running reality television show: every day’s lead news – flattering or unflattering, important or trivial – is about Mr Berlusconi. The entire country has taken on the eerie quality of The Truman Show, the 1998 movie in which a television producer raises a child (played by Jim Carrey) in an artificial town that is nothing but an enormous stage set which the boy, Truman, believes to be real. Viewers around the world, meanwhile, are glued to their sets watching his every action from childhood to maturity, 24 hours a day.

Mr Berlusconi is perhaps the first truly post-modern politician to turn many of the old rules of his trade upside down. Traditional politicians – closely connected to a party, an ideology and a set of programmes – did not need to be personally charismatic. In a post-ideological age, what Mr Berlusconi is selling is Mr Berlusconi, not a party or programme. By dominating the media – he owns the three largest private television networks and indirectly controls the three main public networks – he controls the political discourse and silences his critics, thereby diminishing his opponents.

The bedrock of Mr Berlusconi’s electorate has little interest in politics, reads little or not at all and watches a lot of television, in particular his own networks. Indeed, the more they watch, the more likely they are to vote Berlusconi. A study of women voters, who had previously voted for the governing Christian Democratic Party, found that an astonishing 75 per cent of those who watched four or more hours of television a day voted for Mr Berlusconi in 2001, while only 40 per cent of those who watched two hours or less did so.

To those who avoid politics, Mr Berlusconi’s way of differentiating himself from traditional politicians – even through outrageous behaviour – is endearing. In 1994, when Luigi Spaventa, the Italian economist, questioned him about his economic policies, Mr Berlusconi cut short the discussion by saying: “Before trying to compete with me, try, at least, winning a couple of national championships!” The remark had the air of unassailable truth – however irrelevant it might be to his fitness to govern. Mr Berlusconi, like President George W. Bush, is a master of rightwing populism, using the syntax and body language of the common man while pushing policies that have mainly benefited those in the upper income brackets.

In post-modern politics, appearance matters more than reality. From the standpoint of performance, Mr Berlusconi, who ran as the billionaire economic miracle worker, is in bad shape. The Italian economy has endured five straight years of virtually no growth, an already decrepit judicial system has been further damaged and the country’s international ranking has dropped in almost every significant category: productivity, per capita income, levels of corruption, economic freedom and press liberty.

Yet to Mr Berlusconi, simultaneously a creature and creator of post-modern Italian politics, what matters is not what happened but what people think happened. “Don’t you understand,” he once told Marcello Dell’Utri, one of his closest advisers, who is now appealing against a conviction for collusion with the Mafia, “that if something is not on television it doesn’t exist! Not a product, a politician or an idea.” Meanwhile, the Italian public keeps hearing Mr Berlusconi saying that his government has done more than the previous 50 governments put together.

In The Truman Show, the protagonist senses that something is missing from his life and tries to escape his perfectly-constructed world by sea. He realises his world is fake when his boat bumps into the plastic, painted blue horizon. Italian voters have registered significant disenchantment with Mr Berlusconi, recognising that things are not as he presents them. But how deep is the disenchantment? Before his latest charm offensive, Mr Berlusconi’s approval ratings were disastrously low. The coming elections will test whether reality still matters or whether one can govern by appearance alone.

The writer, professor of international journalism at Columbia University, is author of several books on Italian themes including the forthcoming The Sack of Rome (Penguin), about Silvio Berlusconi

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