April 7, 2009 / 12:17 PM / 11 years ago

Quake may help Berlusconi image, economy unharmed

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s earthquake gives Silvio Berlusconi a chance to show the drive that has kept him at the top of Italian politics for 15 years, while the economic impact won’t affect his popularity, still high despite the recession.

Before the disaster, opponents had called the conservative premier undemocratic for criticizing parliament as slow. That was forgotten on Monday as he visited the ruined Abruzzo region, still shaken by aftershocks, and rattled off orders.

“The government is here,” said the 72-year-old billionaire, repeating the motto he used in Naples to clear away stinking piles of shoulder-high rubbish in two months which the previous center-left administration had failed to shift in 20. In March he inaugurated a new plant, built in just 10 months, that will generate power from the trash.

On Monday in L’Aquila, the 13th-century mountain city turned to rubble by the earthquake which killed more than 200 people and made 17,000 people homeless, he vowed to repair the ruins and build a new town for young families “in 24 to 28 months.”

Italy is used to seeing pharaonic public works promised and never delivered, with funds siphoned off by officials and the mafia. In Sicily, people are still living in emergency huts built for victims of a quake in 1908 that killed 5,000 people.

But emergency response is now coordinated by the widely respected Civil Protection Department, which by early on Tuesday was well on the way to erecting 7,000 tents in and around Abruzzo’s main town L’Aquila, enough to sleep 40,000.

When questions were asked on Monday why the agency did not respond to recent warnings from an Italian scientist in Abruzzo that a major quake was on its way, seismologists and politicians of all colors dismissed it as “unscientific” speculation and defended the Civil Protection chief.

Side-by-side with rescue leaders in L’Aquila, a serious Berlusconi said now was the time to concentrate on relief and “later we can talk about whether earthquakes can be predicted.”

Berlusconi enjoys high popularity ratings in Italy — his own polls put him at over 60 percent and independent polls at over 50 percent, way ahead of the center-left. These belie what he calls hostile treatment from the media, which he complains “makes one want to say ‘Go to hell!.’”

HUMAN STORY

Top Italian pollster Renato Mannheimer said Berlusconi had managed to circumvent the media and build a direct rapport with ordinary Italians, and his response to the earthquake was likely to further boost his ratings.

“Berlusconi is very popular. It is not that one event can change your popularity. But he has an ability to create a direct rapport with the population ... which works very well and has also worked in this case,” Mannheimer told Reuters.

“He is building a direct relationship with voters which he emphasizes in different episodes of political life. This is an ongoing process and is triumphing at the moment,” he said.

Rebuilding the medieval towns and villages of Abruzzo — which one journalist flying over the area said looked like “Lego broken into thousands of pieces” — seems a tough prospect for a country mired in its worst recession since World War Two.

Berlusconi promised 30 million euros ($40.6 million) in immediate aid and “hundreds” of millions more in European Union disaster funds.

On past form, he will not be inhibited in his spending by Italy having the world’s third highest public debt and a deficit that is expected to burst through the EU’s 3 percent ceiling this year, when economic output is expected to fall steeply.

But the earthquake’s impact on the economy will be limited anyway, said economist Paolo Mameli of Intesa Sanpaolo bank, adding: “This is more of a human story than an economic one.”

“It will have a negligible impact on growth and on public finance,” he said.

“Usually there is a negative effect on consumer confidence but it’s very short-lived and in the longer term there can be a positive impact on growth from reconstruction,” said Mameli.

Additional reporting by Gavin Jones and Danilo Masoni, editing by Mark Trevelyan

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