Among Italy's nine- to thirteen-year-olds he is twice as popular as Jesus Christ. And Silvio Berlusconi has no doubt that he is the Saviour, the man who can rescue his country from the clutches of the Red Devil and all its works.

For the moment though, he says, he is still struggling with himself in the garden of Gethsemane. He has publicly hoped that this 'bitter cup' will pass from him.

But self-doubt has never troubled Silvio Berlusconi. If it had, this unknown son of an obscure bank director would probably never have become the owner of the biggest television network outside the United States, the second biggest publishing conglomerate in Europe and the head of one of the biggest private companies in Italy after Fiat.

Half the television channels that Italians watch are his; so are many of the magazines and books they read, and about 300 of the cinemas they go to. One-third of the advertising goes through his publicity firm, the country's biggest. Tens of thousands of Milanese live in satellite cities he has developed. People insure themselves with him, and buy their socks, soap and groceries at his chain of supermarkets. On Sundays, they watch his crack AC Milan football team, the current champions. And his ego is bigger than his empire.

Any day now he is expected formally to announce that he will plunge into politics to save the fragmented right, defeat the iniquitous, former Communist-dominated left, and lead scandal-plagued Italy into the promised land of low taxes, flourishing private enterprise, moral values and good government. He will only draw back if he manages to persuade the right to form a united front without him first, which seems unlikely.

Under the new, mainly first-past-the-post voting system, the left could win the elections if the fragmented right cannot unite. Who better than Mr Berlusconi to put it together and lead it to victory?

His marketing wizards tell him that voters want a strong, charismatic leader, not some nebulous party; a man who gets things done, not a theorist. Polls say he is the best-known figure in Italy. Nearly half would like him to be a political leader. Why not, as some supporters are demanding, 'Silvio for President'?

One snag is that Italy does not have an American-style president. Nor does it have a directly elected prime minister, although that may come. And at present - although it is early days yet - his new political organisation, Forza Italia] (Come on Italy]), stands to win only 6 per cent of the vote.

Moreover, most other leaders on the right, fellow industrialists and the press are underwhelmed at the idea of being saved by Mr Berlusconi. Some of his closest aides have advised him strongly against it. Dr Indro Montanelli, Italy's best-known newspaper editor, resigning from the daily Giornale Nuovo, publicly warned him that this venture will be 'a disaster - above all for yourself'.

Could the Berlusconi instinct, which in business has seemingly turned everything into gold, have deserted him?

Certainly his opponents have a vast arsenal of ammunition with which they would happily snuff out his venture. First, the irrepressible suspicion that what he really wants to save is not Italy, but his empire.

No private citizen could have become the owner of three out of the country's six television channels, plus a large press, publishing, publicity and cinema empire, without the help of what we now know to have been a corrupt and self-seeking political establishment. Mr Berlusconi was a close personal friend of Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former Socialist prime minister, but he had also clearly obtained vital support among the dominant Christian Democrats.

For years the politicians' failure to pass clear broadcasting regulations enabled Mr Berlusconi to build up a huge private television empire. And when magistrates eventually did close down his stations as illegal, within a couple of days Mr Craxi, citing 'freedom of expression', had signed a decree enabling them to open again. When a law was finally passed, it seemed almost tailor-made to suit him: he could keep everything else, as long as he did not own any daily newspapers - which did not prevent him complaining that 'never has any law in the history of the republic put such colossal limits on an industrial group'. He turned over the majority shareholding in the Giornale Nuovo to his brother, Paolo.

'Berlusconi is a typical product of the regime dismantled by Clean Hands (the corruption investigations),' wrote one of his arch-opponents, Eugenio Scalfari, editor of the daily La Repubblica. 'He was born to it, prospered in it, and without it he would be nothing.'

Silvio Berlusconi has not been named in any scandal, but his brother and several top executives are under investigation in various cases of alleged corruption. He did, however, repay his benefactors and their parties with ample television promotional time during election campaigns, reportedly at extremely low rates.

He fears that if the left comes to power it would cut his media empire down to size and strip him of one or more of his channels. From the remarks of leading former Communists, his fears appear justified.

At the same time he has immense debts: 4,500 trillion lire (pounds 1.8bn), or twice his capital. Some suggest they may be even higher - his unlisted companies, on which he keeps the tightest personal control, are highly secretive. His opponents ask: why do the banks allow Mr Berlusconi the kind of exposure that they would not grant to others? They smell again the rat of political connivance. Is the tycoon, bereft of political protection, now desperately seeking to protect himself?

Finally, there is the small ethical question of his media empire, which, he declares, he will put in the hands of his deputy president, Fedele Confalonieri, as long as he stays in politics. But the saga of the Giornale Nuovo bodes ill: Dr Montanelli quit because Mr Berlusconi, acting as if he still owned the paper, demanded that it back his campaign or, in effect, face ruin.

'I am a businessman who is involved in politics precisely because I want to continue to be a businessman,' he told a group of MPs. If the left wins, he warned on another occasion, 'all entrepreneurs in this country will find themselves with their companies automatically devalued by 30 per cent'.

One of his first political moves was to call for an across-the-board tax cut of 10 per cent, denounced as 'irresponsible' by the left. Another, which backfired somewhat, was publicly to express his preference for Gianfranco Fini, the neo-fascist leader, in the Rome mayoral elections.

He will have a hard task to get what he wants in politics, but Mr Berlusconi lives for hard work and challenge. And then there is the irresistible Berlusconi charm. Eternally tanned, eternally smiling (he reportedly sent staff to photographic agencies to buy up and destroy all unflattering pictures of him), he exudes enthusiasm and adrenalin. He regularly invites staff to his headquarters at a fabulous 18th-century mansion at Arcore, outside Milan, for dinners and soirees when the boss himself - once a night-club crooner - will grab a microphone and sing.

There are bouquets of flowers for the wives of top executives swept off for a weekend's brainstorming session, roses for the wives of Milan players to console them for the lack of marital pleasure on pre-match nights, and a flaming red Ferrari for the employee who sells most publicity.

He runs his rapidly growing political infrastructure with the American-style efficiency he applies to his companies. His executives have been scouring the country collecting several hundred like-minded, appealing candidates to run for parliament. His 'Forza Italia clubs', nuclei of his political movement, have sprung up everywhere. But can he pull off in politics what he achieved in business?

Mr Berlusconi sees himself, Dr Montanelli says, as 'a cross between Churchill and de Gaulle'. Others liken him to the American presidential candidate Ross Perot. But he dislikes being compared to someone 'who pulled out half-way through the fight'. If anything, he says, 'I intend to be the Italian Ronald Reagan of the Nineties'.

(Photograph omitted)

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