ROME -- With a week to go before the Italian general election, and polls forecasting a depressing quagmire, Italian politicians have stepped up their promises with a colorful array of proposals and benefits for the electorate should their party win a clear majority.
There is no Italian politician savvier at inventing catchy slogans and promising appetizing rewards than the indefatigable, 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who was elected prime minister three times and led the country for nine years in total.
His pro-business medley of proposals includes a sizable slash in taxes with an introduction of a so-called "flat tax," the abolition of the road tax, a salary increase for police and military, the creation of a ministry for the elderly with free movie tickets for them, and a handout of 1,000 euros, or approximately $1,200, to Italian mothers.
Berlusconi has come back to campaign energetically in his seventh national election, and says he is confident his re-launched "Forza Italia" party can win a governing majority.
These days, Berlusconi -- beaming and shaking hands with his permanent tan, wax-like face and painted-on hair -- is visible everywhere in the media.
He is known not just for his political maneuvering but also for his wealth, media power, "bunga bunga" sex parties, off-color gaffes, endless divorce battle and passion for the soccer club A.C. Milan, which he owned until last year.
What's not clear is why a man his age would care to campaign in these elections, especially since he has been banned from public office following a criminal conviction for tax fraud. But that hasn’t deterred Berlusconi, who insists he is campaigning again for the love of country and Italians.
Earlier this week, left wing party secretary and former prime minister Matteo Renzi warned voters to watch out for Berlusconi, whom Renzi believes wants to become president of the country in 2022.
Most Berlusconi critics continue to say his lifetime ambition is to one day become president of the Italian Republic. Many Italians are aware that he has always aspired to that largely ceremonial position of Italy's head of state.
Similar to when he decided to form a party and enter politics in 1994 to stop the "communists" from taking over Italy, Berlusconi says he is now targeting what he sees as Italy’s new threat: the populist Five Star Movement, which he often dismisses as a "sect."
The young and aggressive Five Star Movement is expected to win a huge number of votes from disconsolate Italians in this election.
"In 1994 I was forced to go into politics because the communists had a highway to power. I stopped their onslaught in two months and became prime minister," he told Corriere della Sera in a recent interview. "Three, four months ago, when the polls showed the Five Star Movement in a position to win, I had the same reaction, but now that risk has been averted. We are the only ones who can aspire to a majority."
Although his party has splintered over the years and suffered a decrease in support following Berlusconi’s legal problems, he still has fans who cast their vote for his party solely for their admiration of him. Many of his supporters are angry and believe he was unjustly ousted from politics by the left wing party.
Speaking to the BBC earlier this week, he said: "It is natural that Italians vote for me again because they know my past as a businessman, as a statesman and as a sportsman. I have been ousted from politics because of an incredible and shameful sentence. I was ousted from the Senate with a sentence that applied a law retrospectively."
"The Italians know that everything that was said about me was false and thus all the accusations were invented and they always maintained their trust in me," he added. "And I have received more votes from Italians than any other politicians in the history of the Republic of Italy ... more than 200 million votes."
Berlusconi tapped into an apparent intolerance toward migrants in Italy and the disturbing signs of extremist violent incidents hitting the news recently. He joined the burly leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, his coalition partner, in calling for the deportation of migrants, a controversial issue in Italy.
But even though Italians seem increasingly concerned with their safety because of the ugly appearance of right- and left-wing extremist violence, the real driving issue in these elections is the economy. Italians are fed up with the continued downward economic trend of the country and its growing poverty.
Many may hark back to recent times under Berlusconi when they were or felt richer.
Now, Berlusconi knows he just has to convince Italians that he can improve their lives economically and overcome distrust between his disparate coalition party leaders to get a center-right government in power again.
The vote is on Sunday, March 4, with results expected early the following morning.