Feature

Italy’s maverick prime minister

Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi is the first leader of postwar Italy to have been tried for corruption while in office. That didn’t stop him from becoming president of the European Union last month. Is he fit to hold either job?

How powerful is Berlusconi?The head of state is also the head of Europe’s biggest media empire. He’s Italy’s richest man, with a fortune of about $14 billion, earning him the No. 3 slot on Forbes magazine’s ranking of the world’s most powerful billionaires. Known as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) to his admirers and “Il Biscione” (The Water Snake) to his enemies, Berlusconi gained new international prominence when he assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union on July 1. While he remains a deeply divisive figure both at home and on the larger European stage, young Italians have ranked him as their favorite role model, ahead of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesus Christ.

Why is he so controversial?A man of unflinching self-assurance, Berlusconi often sounds—and acts—like a Third World dictator. He has likened himself to Napoleon and says he’s bald because his “brain is so big” that it pushes his hair out. For years, Berlusconi has successfully thwarted charges of financial misconduct and conflicts of interest, unashamedly using his power to squash prosecutions. Found guilty in the 1990s of false accounting, illegal political party financing, and bribery, Berlusconi either got the convictions overturned or dragged out the appeals until they expired under the statute of limitations. As prime minister, he has pushed through laws that have decriminalized false accounting, freeing himself from three major corruption charges. Most recently, he was brought to trial for allegedly giving a judge a $130,000 bribe in 1985 to prevent the sale of the state-owned food giant SME to a business rival. But in late June, his majority party in parliament enacted a law giving him immunity from prosecution while in office.

What’s the source of his fortune?Berlusconi, now 66, has been hustling ever since he helped schoolmates with their homework in exchange for handfuls of candy. In law school, he supported himself by singing aboard summer cruise ships. After graduating in 1961, he went into construction. Using what was rumored to be Mafia money, he soon built Milano Due, a popular U.S.-style suburb east of Milan. Then, in the mid-1970s, powerful Italian legislator Bettino Craxi—who would later become prime minister—helped him exploit Italy’s deregulation of the TV industry. Berlusconi bought up private stations and supplied them with cheap but wildly popular programs, like game shows featuring scantily clad women and such imported fare as Baywatch.

How big is his media empire?Berlusconi has unparalleled power over what Italy’s 58 million people see and hear. He owns Italy’s biggest publishing house, its fourth-largest newspaper, its most popular newsweekly, and its leading ad agency. His crowning jewel is Mediaset, which operates Italy’s three main commercial TV networks. As prime minister, he also has de facto authority over the three state-run channels, giving him control of 90 percent of all Italian TV broadcasting.

Does he exploit that power?Without apology. In one recent period, Mediaset’s channels dedicated 70.6 percent of their political coverage to the government and 14.3 percent to the opposition, according to Osservatorio di Pavia, a watchdog group. The news anchor of the Rete 4 channel, Emilio Fede, has been nicknamed “Fido” for his rabidly pro-Berlusconi views. Berlusconi’s political rivals must even pay him to get their ads aired. The Los Angeles Times has likened the arrangement to “Bill Gates becoming president of the United States, with an absolute majority in the House and Senate, having purchased ABC and CBS while continuing to run and profit from Microsoft.”

Why did Berlusconi get into politics?He entered public service, he says, “out of love for Italy” and to combat the country’s powerful leftist trade unions. His critics counter that the fall of Craxi, his chief patron, forced Berlusconi to seize the reins of power to save his empire from criminal investigation. He first ran for prime minister in 1993, when a reform movement dubbed “Operation Clean Hands” brought down Craxi and the corrupt government of Italy’s reigning Christian Democrats. Berlusconi positioned himself as an untainted outsider, touting a free-market, Reaganesque vision of Italy’s economic future. His new political party, Forza Italia (“Go, Italy”), swept in to power, but his government fell seven months later amid new corruption scandals. After a failed comeback in 1996, Berlusconi was re-elected in 2001 on a platform of tax cuts, bigger pensions, major public works, and 1.5 million new jobs. He’s yet to make good on most of these promises.

So what accounts for his popularity?Italians, long inured to government cronyism and corruption, are fascinated by Berlusconi’s flamboyant persona (“Berlusconismo”). Their colorful prime minister owns a 70-room villa, keeps $250,000 on hand for household accounts, and openly comments on the sexual attractiveness of women. His self-assurance and frankness appeal to many Italians. Last year, he enraged the Arab world and Western liberals by publicly calling Western civilization “superior” to Islam. Recently, he compared a member of the German parliament to a concentration-camp commander. Those who oppose him he vilifies as “communists.”

Can he survive?Berlusconi has declared that if he is ever convicted of corruption, he will not step down. However, his high-profile EU post has brought his critics out in force. The Economist recently declared that he lacks the “moral authority” to be EU president. (Berlusconi promptly sued the magazine.) The London Times has suggested that Italy might not be able to join the EU today because its judiciary and press may be insufficiently independent. Even the usually circumspect United Nations, in a leaked report, has said that Berlusconi acts like he is “above the law.” Through it all, Berlusconi’s confidence in his destiny remains unshakable. “Only I can turn this country around,” he has said.

Silvio, our friend and ally

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