ROME - As Italy gets set to elect its Prime Minister, two candidates stand out as exceptionally gifted demagogues: Silvio Berlusconi, 76, media mogul and former Prime Minister, and Beppe Grillo, 64, the shooting-star comedian from cyberspace.
Of course these two natural-born populists couldn’t be further apart in most respects, except for one: they both love to pin the blame for Italy’s present misery on the Germans – and particularly on Angela Merkel.
Ahead of the national elections on Sunday and Monday, the Germans have become the Italian media's favorite topic. It's not a sign of any deep-seated hostility to Germans among the Italian people, but the idea that Germany is pulling the strings in Italy keeps coming up on the campaign trail.
Mario Monti, who heads the caretaker government and is also running in the general elections as a centrist, commented that he didn’t think that Signora Merkel would want to see the center-left Partito Democratico (PD) come into power in Italy.
A Monti spokesman said the comment was largely a reaction to the repeated attacks over the last weeks from the center-right candidate Berlusconi, who has regularly brought up Merkel's name, warning that Monti and the German Chancellor had privately agreed to support center-left candidate Pierluigi Bersani, who is leading in the polls.
"Neither I nor Bersani need Mrs. Merkel’s blessing," Monti had declared.
Indeed, Merkel was forced on Wednesday to say that she was not taking sides in Italy's election.
Nevertheless, the Germans and their Chancellor remain a number one target for finger-pointing in the present nervous climate in Rome. Whenever a business goes bust, for every man or woman – particularly if they’re young – who can’t find employment, blame is pinned on “German” austerity measures. The Germans forced them on Brussels which then forced it on EU countries -- with the known tragic results, goes the typical rant.
The situation was not helped by European Parliament President Martin Schulz calling on Italians not to vote for Berlusconi. For one thing, this is not something any Italian who voted for Berlusconi in the past is going to want to hear – and the call could in some cases spur voters to go right out and vote for him again. For another, many will remember that this top European politician is actually German – the very same politician that Mr. Berlusconi, ten years ago, called “perfect” for the role of Kapo (guard) in a Nazi concentration camp.
And although Schulz’s remark that "much is at stake in the forthcoming elections, including making sure that the confidence built up by Mario Monti is not lost," referred to the fact that Monti won European and market confidence back for Italy after the Berlusconi era – for many Italians, this past year has been one of hardship, loss, rising prices, not “built-up confidence.”
Italians also remember with disfavor the smile many thought was a disrespectful smirk exchanged very publically at the mention of their leader Mr. Berlusconi by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel 14 months ago.
All of these are reasons why, according to polls, the center-right party behind Berlusconi – in any case a superb campaigner -- now stands, ahead of Monti and Grillo, just 3% away from the leading PD after Bersani’s huge lead in the early phases of the campaign.
Berlusconi has been promising voters the sun, moon and stars – and, expert salesman that he is, he has managed to sell an inexistent platform. Of course many understand that not all this is too be taken overly seriously, including the German card Berlusconi has played so frequently and effectively during the campaign.
That card should be seen as a mere tool for an unnecessary, populist smear campaign that will soon be forgotten. Many in Rome are already saying they feel ashamed by it. And if Berlusconi feels he has a beef with Germans, he shouldn’t be targeting Merkel but another one of her prominent countrymen: Pope Benedict XVI, whose surprise resignation announcement diverted the media's attention from him just as his momentum began to grow.