A showman and a survivor - the man they call the 'watersnake' is back again

Silvio Berlusconi, television and movie mogul, insurance magnate, owner of department stores and AC Milan football club and, most lately, victor in Sunday's regional elections in Italy, is variously described by his countrymen. Admirers refer to him as "Il Cavaliere" or the knight; for foes he is "Il Biscione", the watersnake. But of two things there is no argument. He is a showman - and a survivor.

Almost from the beginning of his career, the man once described as "having sprung from the womb buying low and selling high" has courted controversy which would have doomed less nimble operators.

His early property ventures in his native Milan were said to have the special blessing of the city's ruling Socialist party. Later successes were attributed to his membership of the infamous P-2 ("Propaganda Due") masonic lodge of Licio Gelli, Roberto Calvi et al. A long-time patron in the development of his TV networks was Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister who died a fugitive in Tunisia.

Mr Berlusconi's brother and business partner, Paolo, fell foul of the law, and he was found guilty of fraud. That conviction was thrown out but even as Mr Berlusconi led the Freedom Alliance to victory, he was fighting other cases in court.

But Mr Berlusconi has been here before, using his business success as a political selling point in a country whose cynicism about conventional politicians knows few bounds. The no-nonsense approach, often likened to the billionaire businessman Ross Perot in the US, swept him to the prime ministership for eight months in 1994. That brief spell was memorable for little except a stylish G-7 summit in Naples, and constant argument about conflicts of his business and political interests. But in Italy, that has never been a cardinal political sin.

Sensing a weariness with four years of left of centre rule, and with a self-confidence even Jeffrey Archer might envy, he threw himself back into the fray. His legal contretemps were dismissed as "Stalinist plotting" by his foes.

Much of his campaign was conducted from a cruise liner sailing round the Italian coast. Mr Berlusconi likened it to a crusade, "a mission that has fallen on the shoulders of a little old man who, after working hard all his life, thought he could read his favourite books and play with his grandchildren." Instead he was leading "the life of a madman", compelled to save his country from disaster at the hands of the left. That mission could yet see him back behind the prime minister's desk.

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