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Berlusconi’s image boosted by post-quake response


Rome — Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has hogged the limelight since Monday’s killer earthquake, with daily visits to the disaster zone and his trademark off-the-cuff comments fuelling controversy.

The 72-year-old media mogul toured the quake-ravaged city of L’Aquila in the central Abruzzo region on Wednesday for a third day, promising relief and succour to thousands of survivors.

Experts say it is part of a deliberate strategy to forge an image for himself as a national statesman after being frequently lampooned in both the Italian and the international media for shooting off his mouth.

But despite an unfortunate quip likening the plight of the quake survivors living rough to a camping holiday, Berlusconi has won accolades in the Italian press for his swift response to the crisis.

Berlusconi is "today the symbol and the representative of all institutions," Il Sole 24 Ore financial newspaper said in an editorial on Wednesday.

"Berlusconi has understood that leadership is today exercised from Abruzzo and not Rome," it added.

Wearing black with no tie, the maverick leader has repeatedly promised survivors of the quake that has claimed at least 267 lives that "you are not alone."

While some in the prime minister’s entourage were initially sceptical, the visits have turned out to be a wild success despite some hiccoughs — like the time he told German television that survivors housed in tent villages "should see it like a weekend of camping."

The billionaire leader was also quoted as promising Easter beach holidays to the victims and pledged that the government would foot the bill.

Berlusconi has used such visits in the past to shore up his image. During a garbage collection crisis last year shortly after he came to power, he regularly toured Naples to soothe tempers and held his weekly cabinet meetings there.

But his trademark gaffes have haunted him throughout his career, including a reference to US President Barack Obama as "young, good-looking and tanned."

He also famously told a former showgirl and model Mara Carfagna that he would "go anywhere with you, even to a desert island" and said he would have tied the knot with her "straight away" if he wasn’t already married.

Marc Lazar, a political expert, told AFP Berlusconi was paving his career path after his current job expires.

"Berlusconi is trying to cultivate the stature of a statesman and embody national unity," he said.

"At 72, he is also thinking of the next step which is becoming president of the republic."

Berlusconi has also liberally provided healing words.

"Without hope, one cannot overcome difficulties," he said, speaking in L’Aquila and divulging that he had not slept for nearly two days.

Italian leftist parties, which have traditionally had frosty relations with Berlusconi and have lambasted him in the past, have been unusually guarded this time around.

"He gives the sense that the state is present," said prominent author and editorialist Sergio Romano. "The left sees that even for its own image it’s not a good idea to focus on the defects of the operation," he told AFP.

The opposition had also glossed over Berlusconi’s decision to turn down foreign aid offers on the ground that Italians were "a proud people and we have means."

Only the CGIL, the country’s main leftist trade union, had slammed the remark, urging Berlusconi to focus "more on aid and less on propaganda."