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Italy's Berlusconi Studying Comic-Turned-Rival Ahead of Possible Return to Political Spotlight

Beppe Grillo - H 2012
Beppe Grillo

The billionaire media tycoon admits he has become a student of leftist activist Beppe Grillo and hints at "return to the streets" in August.

ROME – Former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Europe’s richest media tycoon, apparently cannot stop thinking about comedian, leftist activist, blogger, and newly-minted political force Beppe Grillo.

A week after Berlusconi floated the notion that the People of Freedom political party he founded might do well to tap a figure like popular quiz show host Gerry Scotti as its head in order to confront Grillo’s way with words, the 75-year-old billionaire said he is studying Grillo’s oratory techniques himself in preparation for “a return to the streets.”

Berlusconi and Grillo are both populists, but their political leanings are on opposite sides of the spectrum, and Berlusconi’s clean-cut style is in stark contrast to the gruff and bearded Grillo. But Berlusconi admitted to the newspaper Corriere della Sera that he spends around two hours a day watching videos of Grillo and reading his speeches.

“I look at the style behind his speeches, but he is like a rough draft for me,” Berlusconi said Wednesday. “He is far less elegant than I am.”

Grillo has been a political activist for years, but he became politically relevant only last month when the Five Star political party he founded did well in local elections. Grillo has vowed to run a full list of candidates for parliament next year.

Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister last November amid personal and legal scandals, and fears that Italy could fall victim to the European debt crisis. He dedicated his time to the Mediaset television and film empire he founded and to his legal defense in a series of corruption, abuse of power, and tax evasion trials. But he has so far failed to stay away from the spotlight for long.

In his latest remarks, Berlusconi said that Italy is suffering from a lack of leadership since he left politics and that he would “take to the streets, microphone in hand” starting in August in order to help remedy that situation by “explaining to the voters our vision of things.”

It is not clear whether Berlusconi intends to return to the political arena: he is still a member of parliament and he has given mixed signals about whether he plans to step down when his term expires next year.

Meanwhile, his Mediaset empire is struggling amid falling ad sales and the country’s moribund economic performance. On Wednesday, Mediaset’s stock price set a new 52-week low for the fourth time in six trading sessions -- it is down 42 percent over the course of the last year. The company eliminated its dividend earlier this year in order to save cash, and analysts predict it will surrender the title of Italy’s largest broadcaster by the end of the year when it falls behind satellite broadcaster Sky-Italia, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in terms of revenue.