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Attack on prime minister deepens Italy’s divisions

Controversial leader recovering in hospital

A man spreads glue over Green Party posters showing pictures of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and promoting a “No B Day” protest – with the “B” standing for Berlusconi – in Rome on Monday.  (Associated Press)
A man spreads glue over Green Party posters showing pictures of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and promoting a “No B Day” protest – with the “B” standing for Berlusconi – in Rome on Monday. (Associated Press)
Maria De Cristofaro Special to the Los Angeles Times

ROME – The weekend assault on Silvio Berlusconi has highlighted how deeply a polarizing figure the Italian prime minister is, as friends and foes dug in even more firmly Monday to their respective positions on his leadership.

Critics declared that, while nothing could excuse violence, Berlusconi’s clownish antics, scandal-ridden personal life and attempts to manipulate politics to protect his own interests had alienated a large portion of the population and had even sparked glee in some quarters over the attack.

But the prime minister’s associates and allies rallied around him, seeking to parlay the general outpouring of sympathy into a boost for his center-right coalition, which has been struggling to govern amid the travails of its controversial leader.

Berlusconi, 73, remained hospitalized Monday with a fractured nose and broken teeth. The hospital said the prime minister was in good condition but had lost some blood and was in “persistent” pain, the Associated Press reported.

His alleged attacker, who was able to get close enough to hit Berlusconi in the face Sunday with a heavy statuette at a rally in Milan, was identified by police as Massimo Tartaglia. The 42-year-old Tartaglia has a history of mental problems, authorities said. He was being held Monday at the city’s San Vittore prison, the ANSA news agency reported.

So far, there has been no report of an overt political motivation behind the assault. Graphic footage of the attack has shocked Italians and prompted questions about Berlusconi’s security arrangements.

“It’s a bad day for Italy, and all political parties have a duty to make sure that the country does not relive the years of violence” that plagued the country in the 1970s, said Gianfrando Fini, a member of Berlusconi’s ruling coalition. “It’s an act of violence that can’t be justified.”

But others saw it as an unfortunate outgrowth of the sharply divided country that Italy has become under Berlusconi’s premiership.

“Berlusconi is among the creators of this climate, and he can’t play the victim,” Rosy Bindi, an opposition member of parliament, told La Stampa newspaper. “These gestures should always be condemned, never justified. But sometimes they are explicable.”

His critics have been enraged and embarrassed by Berlusconi both on the world stage and at home. As an international statesman, he has referred more than once to President Barack Obama as being “tanned.” In Italy, he is dogged by allegations of throwing parties attended by paid escorts and of trying to pass laws to his own benefit, including one – recently struck down by the court system – that gave him immunity from prosecution. He is embroiled in more than one trial over alleged corruption.

On the other side are staunch defenders who see Berlusconi as a playful but intelligent rogue whose business success is to be admired and whose center-right policies, including opposition to immigration, are exactly what Italy needs.

“The country has really been divided by those who hate Berlusconi, who think he is the source of all the problems of Italy, and those who think he is the source of all the solutions of Italy,” political commentator Franco Pavoncello said in a telephone interview. “The situation has been so radicalized that the atmosphere, the air you breathe in this country, is not a nice one.”

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