ROME (Reuters) - At a recent business conference, Silvio Berlusconi puzzled his audience by boasting that, as prime minister, he had made sure Italians got monthly pensions of 1,000 lire - about the cost of an espresso.
Leading a centre-right coalition that tops polls ahead of a national election on March 4, the 81-year-old leader is showing signs of fragility as he fights back from a ban from holding public office, sex scandals and legal entanglements.
“I have fought back against all the nastiness, all the attacks, all the lies that were thrown at me, from Bunga Bunga to the minors and all the rest,” he told the Rome conference.
He also made a number of verbal slips, saying tax evasion in Italy totalled 800,000 euros, a fraction of the real figure, and economic output was just 1,600 euros, rather than 1.7 trillion.
Yet to appear at any political rallies ahead of the vote, the billionaire has focused his campaign on cosy TV chat shows — and has cancelled some of those, pleading tiredness.
“He’s showing his age,” said Giovanni Orsina, professor of modern history at Rome’s Luiss University. “In the past 10 years the losses, the hits he has taken have obviously had a role in reducing his political abilities.”
Support for his centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party has almost halved since 2001, and the rallies with supporters waving flags and singing “Thank Goodness for Silvio” as they did during his 2008 campaign are nowhere to be seen.
Forza Italia only has a good chance of sharing victory thanks to a deal with far-right allies the League and Brothers of Italy, whose radical messages he often steps in to temper.
“I am still ahead of all the other political leaders even though I can’t stand for office,” he said, his face devoid of wrinkles thanks to repeated cosmetic surgery. “Obviously, I don’t have the 75.3 percent approval I used to have.”
According to a Demos poll published on Friday, Berlusconi came a lowly 8th on the list of Italy’s most respected political leaders, with an approval rating of 26 percent.
Charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute eventually led to an acquittal, but the only definitive conviction after numerous legal cases against him - in 2013, for tax fraud - was enough to banish him from parliament.
Earlier in the campaign, he said Malta had “14 million workers” (its population is less than 450,000) and promised to build “the straits of Sicily” (he meant a bridge over the Straits of Messina to connect Sicily to the mainland).
On his Canale 5 television channel, he boasted of having “eliminated 411,000 taxes.” Italy’s fiscal jungle is estimated to impose around 100 taxes, not hundreds of thousands.
He took a break from campaigning in late January, prompting concerns about his health 2-1/2 years after undergoing major heart surgery. He said he was feeling well but tired out by choosing candidates for the election.
Berlusconi’s continued appeal to part of the electorate, borne out in poll scores of roughly 16 percent for Forza Italia, often bewilders non-Italians.
But for some voters, his old age and the fact he is already rich removes the suspicion that he is in politics for personal gain, a common fear in a country where corruption thrives.
“If I were him, with all his money, I’d be lazing about,” said supporter Antonio D’Arcangelis, 53, a now jobless former state employee. “He must be doing it because he believes in it.”
Many of his fans are attracted by the business acumen that made him a billionaire. He made his first big money in Milan real estate development, then founded Italy’s biggest private broadcaster and owned AC Milan soccer club for more than 30 years.
“We are putting our hope in a self-made man who built an empire,” said Giuseppe Bracciale, a 52-year-old cook from Torre del Greco in southern Italy, who plans to vote for Forza Italia.
Promises to cut taxes and raise pensions, long the core of Berlusconi’s campaigns, still resonate with many in Italy, where a modest economic recovery has not stopped a rise in poverty or brought unemployment down to the European Union average.
“We have hit rock-bottom,” said Bracciale. Berlusconi “is the only one who can help us get out of this situation.”
The centre-right’s key proposal is a flat tax — a policy Berlusconi has repeatedly floated since entering politics in 1994, but never managed to implement despite spending more than nine years in power between 1994 and 2011.
Other concerns have taken over for some former voters, most notably the question of mass immigration which has become the predominant campaign issue for the League.
“A good chunk of the voters Berlusconi lost have been loaned to the League because today Berlusconi voters, that fearful middle class, are more afraid for their personal security than their economic security,” said Marco Valbruzzi of the Cattaneo Institute research firm.
“They prefer a tougher message, which they get from (League leader Matteo) Salvini,” Valbruzzi said.
Whereas in the last parliamentary election in 2013, the League took four percent of the vote, polls predict it could win 14 percent next month, within striking distance of Forza Italia.
Berlusconi resigned as prime minister at the height of the 2011 debt crisis — a humiliating retreat that most commentators at the time assumed marked the end of his political career.
The perma-tanned leader has always accused hostile European politicians of plotting his downfall, and diehard supporters argue that he deserves another chance to secure his legacy.
Others say he has already had his time in the sun and believe it is time for someone else to take charge.
“I used to love Berlusconi because he made me feel safe. I was young when he first started campaigning. He already had AC Milan, he had his own money. Then I felt unsafe when he gave up. He ran away, abandoned people,” said Alessandra Ciancolini, a 37 year-old from Rome, who works in an antiques shop.
“He got things moving, but he didn’t see it through. If he comes back, the problems are still the ones he left behind, they’ve only got worse.”
Additional reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Phil Pullella and Philippa Fletcher