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Berlusconi's Defense of Mussolini Drawing Widespread Attention, Doubts

Silvio Berlusconi - Possible Return to Politics and Legal Charges

Experts say the comments could damage the media tycoon's surging campaign to earn a fourth term as prime minister.

ROME – Silvio Berlusconi's weekend comments defending Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini still were resonating in the local and international press Monday and could have an impact on the three-time prime minister's campaign for a fourth term and maybe even his media empire, experts said.

STORY: Italy's Silvio Berlusconi Surging in Election Polls, Despite Legal and Personal Scandals

During a Sunday event commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, Berlusconi -- who has been gaining in recent political polls ahead of next month’s national parliamentary elections -- sparked a new scandal when he said Mussolini’s Italy aligned itself with Adolph Hitler’s Germany in order to prevent Germany from conquering Italy. He said the racial laws came from Germany and that Italy was required to enforce them.

“As part of this alliance [with Germany] there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews,” Berlusconi said. “The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did good things.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking a day earlier in Germany, said her country has an “everlasting responsibility” for Nazi crimes, but Berlusconi said Italy “did not have the same responsibility,” adding the country was an “unwitting” participant in the Holocaust, at least at the start.

Berlusconi’s remarks were initially seen as an attempt to gain favor among far-right groups in Italy, many of whom still openly admire Mussolini. Many of those voters say they will vote for smaller extreme parties in the Feb. 24-25 elections in Italy, or not vote at all.

But when it became clear the statements were sparking a scandal, Berlusconi attempted to walk the statements back saying he was against dictatorships.

Analysts said the statements likely would have a negative impact on Berlusconi’s political campaign, which in recent weeks has gained traction and is gaining on favorite Pier Luigi Bersani, who was among those who criticized Berlusconi’s statements. It is too soon to know if the events will have an impact on Berlusconi’s approval levels.

What is even less clear is whether the remarks could have an impact on Mediaset, the television and cinema empire Berlusconi controls. In the past, some advertisers have reportedly pulled their accounts from Mediaset networks after controversial Berlusconi statements. Jewish groups complained about the comments Monday, with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities calling for the country to “seriously take stock of its own history,” but there have been no official calls for action against Mediaset.

STORY: Silvio Berlusconi Trial: Italian Judge Denies Request for Delay for Upcoming Elections

Berlusconi has a long history of gaffes, including famously calling U.S. President Barack Obama, who is black, “tanned” after his 2008 election victory, comparing himself to Jesus Christ because of his sacrifices, and telling homeless earthquake victims they should look at their plight as a kind of “camping trip.” He even addressed Mussolini before, denying the wartime leader ever had anyone killed: “He used to send people on vacation in internal exile,” Berlusconi said.

The 76-year-old Berlusconi also has been hounded by personal and legal scandal for two decades, ranging from “bunga bunga” sex parties to nearly two-dozen legal cases, including one for tax evasion in connection with Mediaset, in which he was sentenced to four years behind bars. In a still-open case, he is being tried for abuse of power and for paying an underage girl for sex.

In the latest opinion polls, Berlusconi has the support of 29 percent of likely voters, in second place among the five main candidates and just seven points behind Bersani. Three weeks earlier, he trailed Bersani by 17 percentage points.