Italy's ex-premier Berlusconi campaigns against populism

FILE - In this file photo taken on Jan. 18, 2018, 81-year-old former Premier Silvio Berlusconi laughs as he attends 'L'aria che tira' tv show at La 7 studios, in Rome. Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi is contending that 600,000 migrants in Italy are “ready” to commit crimes, but his foes are blaming his policies when he governed Italy for the migrant issues dominating Italy’s election campaign and forming the backdrop for an anti-migrant drive-by shooting in an Italian town. (Ettore Ferrari/ANSA via AP)
Italian former Premier Silvio Berlusconi has make-up applied before attending a TV show in Rome, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. Berlusconi can’t run for office because of a tax fraud conviction, but three-time former Premier is once playing king-maker on the Italian political scene ahead of the upcoming March 4 general election. (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP)
Italian former Premier Silvio Berlusconi speaks as he attends a TV show in Rome, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. Berlusconi can’t run for office because of a tax fraud conviction, but three-time former Premier is once playing king-maker on the Italian political scene ahead of the upcoming March 4 general election. (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP)

ROME — Media mogul Silvio Berlusconi jumped into politics a quarter-century ago vowing to save Italy from the communists. Now he's waging a crusade to keep Italian populists out of the government.

To be clear, the 81-year-old Berlusconi cannot seek his fourth premiership or even run for a seat in Parliament in Italy's March 4 election due to a tax fraud conviction.

But he won't let himself be stopped by that — nor by years of sex scandals or a long list of criminal trials. And he is ignoring the toll that time has taken on his body, which has endured heart valve surgery, hair transplants and eyelid tightening.

Berlusconi is out to foil the 5-Star Movement in its goal to enter national government for the first time. He's wooing Italians to vote instead for his center-right Forza Italia party, which he created in the early 1990s with the aim of keeping Italy's communists from gaining power.

The 5-Stars, born of an internet-based citizens' movement, denounce established politicians as parasites, depict the European Union as burdening Italians with harmful rules and confidently await what they predict will soon be the demise of the shared euro currency.

"In this election, there is a force that is populist, rebel, appealing to the have-nots, which is absolutely dangerous. I'd say even more dangerous than the post-communists we have now," Berlusconi said, the latter reference his shorthand for former communists in Italy's ruling Democratic Party.

Interviewed last month on one his TV empire's talk shows, the billionaire businessman proceeded to describe the 5-Stars as "people, who for the most part, have never worked." He contended that 5-Stars regard "with great envy" those who, "through their work, have achieved a certain well-being, which becomes hatred toward those who produce wealth, in other words, entrepreneurs and toward the rich."

The 5-Stars have pledged, if elected, to reduce income taxes, especially on Italy's lower-middle class and single-income families.

A former cruise ship entertainer, Berlusconi built a business empire that included a soccer team, apartment developers, advertising, publishing and the nation's largest private TV network.

Political foes contend he entered politics to protect the needs of his businesses. Italians, apparently undaunted by warnings about Berlusconi's potential conflicts of interests, sent him three times to the premier's office: in 1994, 2001 and 2008.

A flurry of opinion polls have tagged the 5-Star Movement as Italy's most popular party but say it's unlikely to win enough seats in Parliament for an absolute majority.

A hung Parliament could be the result of the March 4 vote, which political analysts predict will produce three blocs: the 5-Star Movement, Berlusconi's center-right alliance and the center-left forces led by former Premier Matteo Renzi.

The 5-Stars' candidate for premier, Luigi Di Maio, at 31 a half-century younger than Berlusconi, insists that to keep the 5-Stars politically pure, he won't enter into a coalition government.

So Berlusconi is being touted by political analysts as a potential "kingmaker," maneuvering to forge a "grand coalition" with moderates in the Democratic fold, which lost many of its former Communists as Renzi steered the party more toward the center.

But the same opinion polls indicate Berlusconi's forces and those of his right-wing allies, the anti-migrant League led by Matteo Salvini and a much smaller right-wing party with neo-fascist origins might be able to clinch an absolute majority.

"Berlusconi's in reach, from his hospital bed" of an alliance victory, said political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte. The LUISS university professor's hospital reference was playful hyperbole: earlier that day, Berlusconi said he was leaving the campaign trail for a few days of rest.

Ahead of the Italian vote, Berlusconi is cultivating a double image. Lobbying Brussels for support, he plays the moderate who will help keep Italy firmly in the EU orbit.

That's a dramatic twist from 2011, when Berlusconi reluctantly resigned as premier after financial markets and the EU leadership worried he couldn't keep Italy from being engulfed by the sovereign debt crisis.

Last month, Berlusconi met with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. At a news conference in Brussels, he denounced the 5-Star Movement, saying it's "not a democratic party, but a sect that depends on the orders received from above." He cited Movement founder comic Beppe Grillo, who rails against EU budget rules, as harmful to Italian citizens.

Back home, Berlusconi is talking even tougher than his ally Salvini, who has promised to deport tens of thousands of immigrants if elected.

After a Nigerian drug pusher was arrested over the death of an 18-year-old Italian woman, whose dismembered body was stuffed inside two suitcases, Salvini pledged at a campaign rally to quickly send home 150,000 asylum-seekers.

A few days later, Berlusconi vowed that his own political forces would repatriate 600,000 migrants if they win, or nearly all of the hundreds of thousands who reached Italy after being rescued at sea in the last few years from human traffickers' smuggling boats.

Like his perma-tan, Berlusconi has an appeal to many Italians that won't wear off.

Berlusconi draws much of his support from older Italians, many of them loyal viewers of his TV networks' mainstream entertainment.

Concerned that his supporters would struggle with Italy's complicated electoral system, Berlusconi has appeared on TV, clutching his party's symbol and slowly demonstrating how voters should mark it with a big "X."

"Berlusconi's voter base is very resilient, despite the fact that he's very old, that he survived a number of political scandals and health issues," Federico Santi, a London-based analyst for Eurasia Group, told The Associated Press. "That he still enjoys such a high degree of support, I think, is very indicative of his ability as a politician and the power of his brand."

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