Silvio Berlusconi Camp Uses Seaside Air Blitz to Rally Supporters Over Summer Break
FLORENCE, Italy – Troubled Italian media mogul and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is going to new heights to try to win the hearts and minds of Italians.
Berlusconi, 76, is facing a year of house arrest and a possible ban from politics after a Supreme Court verdict in a tax fraud and false accounting case. It was the first definitive conviction against Berlusconi in 20 years of civil and criminal trials.
Opinions across Italy vary wildly on the mogul's future: Italian newspapers reveal a rising tide of calls for him to treat his house arrest as an impetus to step away from politics completely, while his closest allies continue to say Berlusconi's leadership is needed to help Italy emerge from its economic malaise.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano recently quashed calls from pro-Berlusconi forces for the possible political ban to be thrown out or reduced to a symbolic amount of time.
The coming weeks are likely to be crucial as Berlusconi battles to maintain his political relevance despite his legal woes.
Normally, Berlusconi would try to shape public opinion by turning to his greatest strengths: the three national television networks and the rest of the massive empire that make up Mediaset, the TV, cinema, and print media giant Berlusconi controls. Trouble is, it's August – the month when Italian television viewing hours, cinema attendance and newspaper readership levels all dip to their lowest levels of the year. The populations of big cities like Rome, Milan, and Turin are nearly reduced to half as seaside resorts expand dramatically.
Berlusconi's solution? Bring his message to the beaches. According to Italian media, Berlusconi allies hired at least nine aircraft to fly over Italian beaches in northern and central Italy this week, trailing 85-foot signs with messages like "Go Silvio!" and "Show Strength, Italy!"
Some Berlusconi foes have said the air blitz is illegal, charging political leaders cannot "campaign" outside of campaign season. But Berlusconi's allies said the signs were flown in support of Berlusconi, the private citizen.
It's too early to say if the ploy will have any impact on Berlusconi's approval levels. But Rome-based pollster Opinioni says they probably won't. Polls showed that approval levels for the billionaire barely moved after his Supreme Court conviction, staying in the range of around 25 to 30 percent. The seaside air blitz is unlikely to do much, according to Maria Rossi, Opinioni's co-director.
"There's a die-hard percentage of Italians who stand behind Berlusconi no matter what and others who strongly oppose him," Rossi said. "It's hard to imagine a few signs flown over the seaside will convince either side to change camps."
But she said at least the mogul is being talked about again. "The signs were flown yesterday, and today everyone is talking about Berlusconi when they wouldn't have done that otherwise," she concluded.