Berlusconi attack prompts Italian soul-searching

ROME Mon Dec 14, 2009 8:20pm GMT

1 of 11. Photos show Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (L) after he was attacked and a man apprehended in the incident in downtown Milan December 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Livio Anticoli/Italian Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout

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ROME (Reuters) - Italians asked on Monday if an ugly assault on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was prompted by a "climate of hatred" splitting their nation and commentators said a wave of sympathy looked set to boost his political fortunes.

Berlusconi was admitted to hospital on Sunday with broken teeth, a fractured nose and a scarred face after a man with a history of mental problems threw a statuette of Milan cathedral at him as he signed autographs after a political rally.

A medical bulletin said on Monday there were no big worries about Berlusconi's condition but he would stay in hospital at least until Tuesday because he was complaining about sharp pains in the head and face and had lost about a liter of blood.

His doctor, Alberto Zangrillo, said on state television Berlusconi would not return to work for 10 days.

Some commentators said the attack would help Berlusconi, whose high ratings have been hit by accusations of corruption and sex scandals. They said a "sympathy factor" was likely to boost his popularity, and that the attack would strengthen his position in his sometimes fractious center-right coalition.

"I expect his ratings to go up in the eyes of public opinion and this will also make it harder for anyone in the center-right to aspire to take his place anytime soon," leading national political commentator Massimo Franco told Reuters.

Images of Berlusconi's bloodied and bruised face were shown on television around the world and on the front pages of all Italian newspapers, but the headlines and comments went well beyond the injuries.

"A Time of Hatred" was the headline used by La Nazione newspaper of Florence. The word "hate" was used in many headlines and commentators as Italy searched its soul over what happened to its controversial and divisive premier.

DANGEROUS TENSIONS

"I am very worried by this escalation of hatred against a single person," said Senate Speaker Renato Schifani, a close Berlusconi ally.

Even left-leaning commentators who have led anti-Berlusconi campaigns over his corruption trials and personal problems acknowledged the attack represented a symbol of political tensions that had boiled over dangerously.

"This clearly shows the degradation of the political clash in Italy," said Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief of Rome's La Repubblica, a newspaper which has been sharply critical of the prime minister's governance.

L'Unita, newspaper of the largest opposition grouping, the Democratic Party, which has often demanded Berlusconi's resignation, called the attack "madness."

PD President Rosy Bindi was quoted as saying Berlusconi, who has often accused his opponents of being "communists" out to destroy him, was himself responsible for the tense climate and said Berlusconi "should not play the victim."

Political sources said Berlusconi's security procedures were under review since the assailant, Massimo Tartaglia, came close enough to have killed the prime minister if he had used a gun.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, who said Berlusconi "risked being killed," will address parliament on Tuesday.

The last assassination of a senior politician in Italy was in 1978 when Red Brigades guerrillas killed ex-prime minister Aldo Moro in one of the country's most highly-charged periods.

Commentators said the Berlusconi incident could even raise political tensions further before they eventually simmered down.

"The assailant was crazy but we all know who those morally responsible are," said Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family. It said the attack was made possible by a climate where "Berlusconi has been called a dictator, a fascist, a tyrant, an absolute monarch to overthrow at any cost."

Berlusconi allies strongly attacked Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate who heads a small opposition party, after he said the prime minister was "the instigator" of the attack because of his confrontational behavior and insults.

Stripped of immunity from prosecution last October, Berlusconi faces several trials, including one on charges of bribery and corruption and another on charges of tax fraud.

An opinion poll published on Saturday indicated his popularity had fallen four percentage points to just over 50 percent as Italians fretted that his legal entanglements could distract him from government duties.

Berlusconi denies wrongdoing and says allegations against him are part of a politically-motivated campaign by biased judges. He has also been embroiled in a scandal over his relationship with a prostitute. He never denied sleeping with the woman but said he never paid for sex.

(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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