Silvio Berlusconi: The two faces of Italy's billionaire premier

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The Independent Online

The opposition walked out of the chamber in protest; a few dozen left-wingers demonstrated outside parliament. But when the new law to protect the top five office holders of the Italian state from prosecution was voted through this week, the popular reaction was as close to zero as you can measure.

After two years of high political drama, during which the government's programme was sidelined while they tried to devise ways of preventing the prime minister from being found guilty of corruption, with one leap Silvio Berlusconi was free. The legal cases against him - and in particular the case in which he is accused of bribing judges to favour a business buy-out, which was drawing perilously close to judgement day - are frozen for as long he remains prime minister. His term expires in 2006.

The new law was rammed through parliament in double quick time, and with improved guile the government prevented it from being hijacked at committee stage and sat on for long periods by the opposition, as happened to an earlier attempt to get "the Cavalier" (as Berlusconi is known in Italy) out of trouble.

But that wasn't the only factor that allowed the government to get this dubious law - which unshackles the prime minister and his top colleagues from responsibility for any malfeasance they may have committed in the past for as long as they remain in office - on to the books with minimum fuss and bother. There's another thing, too. It's a little harder to pin down; it's very culture-specific; it's something which no Italian, whatever their political stripe, can ignore. It's called bruta figura.

If Mr Berlusconi had been convicted and sentenced to prison while Italy held the rotating EU presidency - ie during the next six months - the verdict might have been considered by many Italians to be appropriate, just long overdue; but more important than all those things, it would also have represented a bruta figura - an ugly, shameful spectacle, a miserable embarrassment for the entire nation. And, therefore, a disaster that had to be avoided at all costs. This may seem a little weird, but it can be explained.

Electing as prime minister a man whom a great many people, inside Italy as well as out, believe to be at the least a bit of a spiv, at the worst a professional crook in league with the Mafia - that's not embarrassing or shameful. But for the same man to be judged and sentenced on that basis, while representing his nation on the world stage - that is something that many, including some members of the opposition and the head of state, President Carlo Ciampi - would consider an intolerable national embarrassment.

This is the specifically Italian conundrum we need to wrestle with to understand Silvio Berlusconi's success. This is the climate of moral relativism in which the Cavalier has lived and prospered.

Italy is unquestionably at the heart of Europe, in a way that Britain never will be: founder-signatory of the Treaty of Rome, founder member of the eurozone, etc, etc. Yet Mr Berlusconi arrives at the EU presidency next week as exotic in certain respects as an oriental pasha.

He is the end-product of generations of low political expectations. People everywhere moan about their politicians, but the Italians really mean it. My local newsagent rewarded my faithful custom the other day with a lecture on the subject. "Your politicians in the north come into government with a programme," he said. "People vote for them because they expect them to carry it out. Here, no. People don't expect them to do anything. They're only in government for themselves, and their friends. All the parties are the same." "So in that case," I demanded, "why do people bother to vote for them?" Voter turnout in Italy is routinely high. A cunning look came into his eye.

"They vote for the one who they believe will offer them the best protection against the law." Silvio Berlusconi entered politics 11 years ago after a staggeringly successful career, first as a property developer and subsequently as a media magnate, made him the richest man in Italy. Corruption and clientilismo - mutually enriching relationships between politicians and selected businessmen - had been endemic to Italian politics for generations. They appeared too entrenched to be uprooted. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War suddenly put the parties, specifically the Christian Democrats and the Socialists - which had taken turns in power for decades, growing fat and lazy - on their mettle.

Suddenly they were vulnerable. A string of corruption cases that began in Milan, the nation's commercial heart, exposed the webs of corruption that most people had suspected to exist but which had always been hidden. Those who had grown rich from battening on the public purse were exposed in all their iniquity. Some went to jail. Many disappeared from public life. And the parties of the establishment went down like antique, worm-infested galleons in a still sea.

Tangentopoli (Bribesville), the media shorthand used to refer to this frantic interlude, was a watershed, a moment of national catharsis. Italy, many thoughtful Italians will tell you, is not a "normal country" like France or Britain, where things work in the way they are supposed to work. Italy has corruption, the Mafia; it is a weak, young state which nobody puts much faith in. Many Italians would love their country to be a normal state, like those of northern Europe. And the watershed of Tangentopoli offered a golden opportunity to start all over again.

Or so, in the fine frenzy of the moment, it must have seemed. But Tangentopoli was not a revolution, sweeping the old order away in its entirety. It was more in the nature of a guerrilla ambush by the judiciary which had succeeded beyond anybody's expectations. Bettino Craxi, for example, the former Socialist prime minister who was Silvio Berlusconi's patron and friend, godfather to one of his children, was gone, fled to exile in Tunisia to avoid being put on trial, never to return. The party he had led was sunk. But the machinery of wealth, the immense complex of businesses his patronage had helped to bring into being, was - so far at least - untouched.

Enter, in 1992, Silvio Berlusconi. His decision in that year to throw himself into national politics was a defining moment. He set about making a success of it, using the same methods and many of the same people as he had used to become a billionaire. The victory of his new party, Forza Italia - the name is borrowed from the roar, "Go Italy", of the football terraces - in the general election of 1994 was the moment the majority of Italians said they did not really believe in the Tangentopoli revolution. They believed in Berlusconi.

They reaffirmed that belief when they voted him in again two years ago. His appeal to the electorate, then as now, is two-fold. Ordinary Italians have never had the sort of problem with success that the British have. They just love it, and the bigger and flashier and more splendid the better. That's why they worshipped Gianni Agnelli, the recently deceased head of Fiat, with his incredible looks, his fancy foreign friends like John Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, his yachts, his magnificent women. This was bella figura - literally "beautiful form" - taken to a glorious extreme, and the glory reflected on the whole nation. They called him Italy's true king.

The Cavalier is no Gianni Agnelli: he's the podgy, shortish, balding son of a bank clerk who came out of nowhere. But that is the second source of his appeal.

For the mass of Italians he is the ordinary Joe next door who by dint of incredible hard work and determination has landed on top of the heap, and good luck to him. And if he's bent a few rules along the way - good God, who hasn't? How else do you survive in this country? Did anyone get hurt as a result? Berlusconi has persuaded Italians to believe two contradictory things about him: that he is both a brilliant businessman, Italy's master of the universe, their proudest son; and, simultaneously, that he is a hapless victim of legal persecution.

With his control of more than 90 per cent of Italian television output, with the two daily newspapers and the weekly news magazine loyal to him, to any outsider the idea that he could be the victim of anyone seems preposterous. But in Berlusconi's version, there is a brutal political vendetta under way in Italy, with the toghe rosse, the "red togas" of the Milanese courts hell-bent on finishing what they began in 1991 with the Tangentopoli trials.

And those who vote for him buy the idea: for all his wealth and influence, he looks just the sort of guy - with his workaday suits, plain looks, plebeian background - that the intellectual snobs would love to put away. He's Italy's little big man, and he wins their sympathy every time.

So what is Berlusconi going to do with the EU Presidency. While his relative inexperience in politics doesn't do him much harm in Italy, where expectations are so low, on the international stage it is always likely that he will appear the bumbling parvenu. Luckily for him, he has the smooth and solemn figure of Gianfranco Fini, leader of the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale and deputy prime minister, at his side ready to cover the more desperate fluffs.

The thing that would make Berlusconi's, and Italy's day would be for the Italian presidency to culminate in a second Treaty of Rome. Recent attacks by Berlusconi on his two co-nationals in the top echelons of the EU, Romano Prodi and Guiliano Amato, made that look unlikely, and the bureaucratic obstacles may prove unsurmountable. But if he were to pull it off, it would be the sort of event that Berlusconi and his millions of supporters could really relate to: a grand political circus, with everyone in their nicest clothes, beautiful music, beautiful flowers, beautiful classical Italian architecture for the backdrop.

Because a bella figura makes the world go round.

LIFE STORY

Born

29 September 1936, in Milan.

Family

Married twice; Marina and Piersilvio, from his first marriage, help to manage the family business; three younger children from his second marriage, with former actress Veronica Lari.

Education

Studied law at the University of Milan.

Business career

In 1962 he founded Elinord, a construction company; in mid-1970s he bought Telemilano cable shopping channel; launched Canale 5 network in 1980; brought Italia 1 TV network in 1983 and Rete 4 TV network 1984; bought Milan football club in 1986; bought Mondadori publishing house in 1990; declared annual income is $7.7m, and has an estimated $11bn fortune.

Political career

Founded Forza Italia in 1993; elected Prime Minister in 1994, but resigned seven months later; became PM again in 2001.

He says

"Because of my personal history, my professional skills and my business achievements, I am a man nobody can expect to compare himself with."

They say

"We can't allow Europe to fall into the hands of people like Berlusconi, Haider, or Le Pen" - Gerhard Schröder, German premier

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