Berlusconi’s latest: 'In many ways Mussolini did well'

Silvio Berlusconi pictured during a political rally in Rome last week. Credit: Reuters

Just as it seemed that Silvio Berlusconi was rehabilitating himself with the Italian electorate, he manages to hit the self-destruct button once again.

This time it’s not ‘bunga-bunga’, not even being rude about the Germans, but praising Mussolini.

And on Holocaust Memorial Day to boot.

The election is about four weeks away, and even though he insists that - whatever the result - he will not be the next Prime Minister, Berlusconi and his centre-right coalition have been making steady progress in the polls.

But now this: Mussolini, he said, was right to ally himself with Hitler’s Germany rather than opposing it, and although “the racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, in so many other ways he did well."

Back in the 1930s it was fashionable to conclude that “whatever his faults, at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.”

But in 2013? And when you are the public face of a coalition that includes parties whose roots can be traced back to the fascist era?

His opponents are outraged, and it’s a fair bet that many ordinary Italians will be too, but the impact on the election campaign is uncertain.

Berlusconi is already defying every law of political gravity just by being in this race at the very moment he’s on trial for alleged under-age prostitution, especially as a verdict in that trial is almost certain to be delivered before election day.

Berlusconi’s lawyers’ request for a delay have been rejected by the Milan magistrates who appear heartily fed-up with the attempts at delay and prevarication.

But will a guilty verdict force him out of the race, any more than the recent guilty verdict and jail sentence (to be served sometime/maybe/never) for tax evasion had any effect?

It seems unlikely.

The country’s next prime minister still seems certain to be Pier Luigi Bersani of the centre-left, possibly serving in coalition with the grouping around outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Pier Luigi Bersani is likely to be Italy's next prime minister. Credit: Reuters

But Berlusconi and the centre-right may do enough to be in control in the Italian senate which may mean nothing at all getting done. It is not a pretty scenario.

The country has made some progress towards reform in the year or so that Mario Monti has been in charge, but only some.

Much had to be watered down in the face of union opposition, and the emphasis was shifted noticeably from spending cuts to tax rises.

A new left-of-centre coalition is unlikely to reverse that.

It is the other ‘super-Mario’ - Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank - who has done most to ease the financial crisis in Italy.

His promise of unlimited intervention in the bond markets has brought the cost of borrowing money down from around 7 percent to nearer 4 percent.

But averting financial disaster has not eased the profound economic crisis. Between April 2008 and November 2012, Italian industrial production fell by and astonishing 24.9 percent.

In 2012 alone, new car sales fell by 20 percent.

A return to meaningful and sustained economic growth still seems a very long way away.

That is the big issue. Berlusconi, however newsworthy he insists on making himself, is the side-show.