By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - A recent front-page cartoon in Italy's mainstream newspaper Corriere della Sera depicted elderly former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi affectionately holding the hand of his little ice-cream licking "son" Matteo Renzi, the current premier.
The sketch summed up a growing perception in Italy that 40-year-old Renzi, leader of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has moved so far to the right that he has become the political heir to 79-year-old conservative leader.
The cartoon followed an announcement by Renzi that he was relaxing a limit on the use of cash, which had been introduced by a previous government to curb rampant tax evasion.
The last person to raise the cash ceiling, in 2008, was Berlusconi, to howls of protest from the PD, which said at the time that he was pandering to his electoral base of tax-dodging small businesses and retailers.
The cash threshold was just the latest of many examples of the former mayor of Florence singing from Berlusconi's hymn sheet, blurring the traditional divide between left and right and making the future of Italian politics more unpredictable.
"Renzi has decided to ally himself with big business," said Luca Ricolfi, a sociology professor and prominent political and economic commentator. "By most traditional parameters his economic policy is more to the right than Berlusconi's."
Berlusconi's decline and the absence of an obvious center-right successor offers Renzi rich electoral pickings among his former voters, if only he can persuade them to cross an increasingly tenuous but deep-rooted political divide.
The centre-piece of Renzi's 2016 budget is the abolition of housing tax, reviving a flagship policy of Berlusconi which had always been criticized by the left and most economists, who see it as populist move that will dent a drive to cut the deficit.
The budget has been attacked by the trade unions, the PD's traditional allies, but cheered by industry lobby Confindustria, which welcomes Renzi's labor reforms and tax breaks.
Renzi's left-wing predecessor as PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani, said that by scrapping the housing tax even for those with castles, Renzi was pandering to the rich and flouting the constitutional tenet that tax levels should be linked to income.
Renzi shot back that "cutting taxes is neither right-wing nor left-wing, it's just the right thing to do".
Renzi's choice of allies angers PD traditionalists as much as his policies. With his parliamentary majority weakened by defections, he has enlisted the help of Denis Verdini, a former close aide to Berlusconi, to push through a hotly contested reform to reduce the powers of the upper house Senate.
Verdini abandoned Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in July along with a group of fellow deserters to bolster Renzi's majority. Facing trial for fraud, bankruptcy and corruption, Verdini is seen as a pariah by many in the PD.
Rubbing salt into their wounds, Verdini says he is confident Renzi will eventually break with the left and turn the PD into a broad-church party like the defunct Christian Democrat party that dominated Italy for 50 years after World War Two.
"Renzi is emptying our policy bag," said an exasperated deputy from Forza Italia, asking not to be named.
Renzi's signature reform this year, abolishing the talismanic article 18 of the labor statute that protected workers from wrongful dismissal, achieved what Berlusconi failed to do 13 years ago, when he was beaten back by union resistance.
Renzi's schools reform and his bid to cut the powers of the Senate also both have echoes of previous Berlusconi initiatives.
The similarities are not limited to policy.
Both men have formidable communication skills based on constant, can-do optimism. They both came to power cultivating the image that they were outsiders vowing to sweep away an old, discredited political class.
Berlusconi made a "contract with the Italians" on television in 2001 promising "less taxes for everyone". Fourteen year on, Renzi proposed a "pact with the Italians" involving whopping tax cuts of 50 billion euros ($56 billion) by 2018.
On a personal level, Renzi and Berlusconi seem to like each other. Renzi snipes at the unions and PD dissidents far more often than he criticizes Berlusconi; and the aging opposition leader is similarly "soft" on the prime minister.
"Berlusconi sees himself in Renzi and he also envies him," says Vittorio Feltri, former director of Berlusconi's family newspaper Il Giornale. "When you see someone 40 years younger doing what you tried to do, then envy is only natural."
Berlusconi won three national elections over 14 years before he was hamstrung by a tax fraud conviction and sex scandals. Renzi, who took office last year in an internal PD power struggle, has yet to win an election.
Some analysts believe he may dominate Italian politics as long as Berlusconi did, though that looks less likely now than it did in May last year when the PD won a record 41 percent in elections for the European Parliament.
While Renzi tries to harvest votes on the right he seems unconcerned by the risk of alienating traditional PD voters.
A poll published on Saturday by the Demos agency showed that after a long slide his personal approval ratings rose four points in a month to 44 percent, and he remains Italy's most popular politician.
However the PD got just 31.8 percent of voting intentions, continuing a steady decline since a peak of 45.2 percent in June 2014 and the lowest level since just after Renzi became leader. The second placed anti-establishment 5-Star Movement lags by 4.6 points, compared with a 26-point gap 15 months ago.
"It's very interesting because Renzi is following center-right policies but he is not getting center-right votes," said Antonio Noto, director of the IPR polling agency. "Disillusioned center-right voters are switching to 5-Star, not to the PD."
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Editing by Timothy Heritage)