Silvio Berlusconi

Can silky Silvio pull it off again?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

It would be hard to find anyone who loves Silvio Berlusconi quite as much as Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy's richest man confesses to a 'superiority complex' and has compared himself to Jesus, Moses, Napoleon and Winston Churchill.

There would also appear to be a vanity complex. Atop a small 69-year-old frame said to be raised by platform shoes sits a pinball head recently subjected to a facelift and hair transplant.

Such bare-faced narcissism in an ageing fashion designer would raise few eyebrows in image-conscious Italy, but the sharply dressed and perfectly chiselled Mr Berlusconi is the nation's prime minister.

And a constant figure of fun for comedians and satirists.

'I don't hate him at all,' says Vladimir Luxuria, a transsexual member of an opposition left-wing political party. 'On the contrary, we're rather alike. Both of us wear make-up and put on high heels for public occasions.'

Vladimir and silky Silvio have another thing in common; they are both on the campaign trail in advance of the general election to be held next month.

Five years in the hot seat has only whetted the appetite for Italy's longest serving leader since Mussolini. Mr Berlusconi recently announced he deserved 15 years in power to achieve his goals.

It is the stuff of nightmares for opponents who delight in ridiculing their PM.

That garish and ghastly caricature is lapped up overseas, particularly in Britain where The Independent newspaper recently derided Mr Berlusconi's sprawling Sardinian villa for having 'more marble and neo-Baroque twiddly bits than you can shake a stick at'.

But what lies beneath the day-glo facade?

The son of a bank clerk and housewife, Mr Berlusconi's strict upbringing saw him packed off to a boarding college run by Salesian priests.

After qualifying from university in Milan, he amassed a fortune in construction before making his big breakthrough when commercial TV hit Italian screens in the 1980s.

With the help of high-level political friends, Mr Berlusconi took control of the three commercial channels and orchestrated a sea-change in TV viewing, filling schedules with American imports and endless variety shows.

Today his Mediaset empire has expanded to include radio stations and newspapers plus the nation's largest advertising agency and publishing house. He also owns AC Milan, one of the world's biggest football clubs.

Wielding this enormous influence, it was no real surprise when his Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party won a stunning victory at the 1994 general election - just two months after the it was founded.

He was made PM but lasted only a few months. Then, in 2001, he made a stunning comeback, winning a clear majority in both houses of parliament.

On the international stage Mr Berlusconi infamously told a critical German MP that he would recommend him for the role of a camp guard in a film about Nazi concentration camp. He also said Parma had beaten Helsinki in the race to host the European Food Safety Authority because he flirted with the (female) Finnish prime minister.

'I'm incapable of saying no,' be blurted on another occasion. 'Luckily, I'm a man and not a woman.'

While opinion is split on gaffes like these and Italians don't necessarily believe everything Mr Berlusconi says (his wife Veronica has called him 'the most amusing liar I know') they seem nonetheless spellbound by his public charm and charisma.

It could be that their prime minister, casting himself as an anti-intellectual populist, has harnessed the key attributes of a successful modern-day capitalist leader.

Observers say Mr Berlusconi is more colloquial rather than stately, railing against an out-of-touch elite and raising the spectre of communism. Conservative social values strike a loud chord alongside proud patriotism.

With indirect control of state television added to his vast media interests, the message often passes unchallenged.

In the two month period before election rules required equal TV air-time for political parties, the prime minister racked up more than five hours of TV appearances - against 20 minutes for his main opponent, Romano Prodi.

A striking example of Mr Berlusconi's style revolves around his ongoing battle with the Italian judiciary, which has targeted him, so far unsuccessfully, in numerous corruption investigations.

In power, Mr Berlusconi has decriminalised false accounting, made money laundering harder to trace and offered amnesties to tax dodgers and illegal builders. Just a few weeks ago his government passed laws that shortened the statute of limitations on white-collar crime.

Critics say the changes were another example of Mr Berlusconi using parliament as a personal fiefdom. Thousands of people would be protected from possible prosecution, primarily himself.

The judges - or 'red togas' as Mr Berlusconi calls them - get short shrift. He claims they are part of a larger communist plot to oust him.

Comments like that have prompted some observers to speculate if Mr Berlusconi is becoming delusional.

Last month the comparisons to historical figures caused concern. 'I am the Jesus Christ of politics,' he said. 'I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.' A few days earlier: 'Only Napoleon did more than me, but I am taller than him.'

Then last week came an extraordinary impromptu appearance at a conference of businessmen who were discussing how to spark economic growth.

It has ground to a halt under Mr Berlusconi, whose Midas touch in private business has gone AWOL on matters of the national economy. The situation is so bad that The Economist magazine recently described Italy as 'the new sick man of Europe'.

But the billionaire leader is having none of that kind of talk.

'Don't pay attention to the newspapers that talk about decline,' he told a stunned audience. 'An entrepreneur has the duty of optimism ... Open your eyes, where is the crisis?'

In the front row one of Mr Berlusconi's former allies and now dedicated foe, shoe tycoon Diego della Valle, shook his head in disbelief.

'I see Signor della Valle shaking his head,' seethed Mr Berlusconi. 'If an entrepreneur goes out of his mind and supports the left, I believe he must have many skeletons in his closet and many things that must be pardoned. And so he puts himself under the protective cloak of the left and the left-wing judges.'

Mr della Valle was scathing in response. 'I am worried by the state in which I saw him,' he said. 'He is a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. All those who love him should be sure to stay close to him.'

He went on: 'He thinks Italy belongs to him, that he can do what he wants with it according to his own convenience, and he is arrogant and a bully.'

Mr Berlusconi later accused his lying opponents of organising 'ranks of thugs' to disrupt his election rallies. It was a 'democratic emergency'. Foreign capital was taking flight from Italy.

Tobias Jones, author of The Dark Heart of Italy, believes the one-time maverick is displaying egocentricity bordering on megalomania.

'In 2003 I was in a Milanese courtroom where Mr Berlusconi was on trial,' wrote Jones. 'As he emerged into the crowded corridor, someone shouted loudly, 'You'll end up like Ceausescu'.

'Berlusconi called police officers over and told them to take down the man's details.

'It was an eloquent snapshot of a man whose seems both threatened and threatening.'