Italian Election: Political novice strikes it lucky first time: Fiona Leney in Rome answers questions about Silvio Berlusconi and charts the astonishing speed with which he has come to power

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Who is this man, Silvio Berlusconi? He is a 54-year-old political novice, who seems to have struck lucky first time in this line of business after several career changes. He started his working life at the age of 27, as a property developer and builder, albeit of a rather superior kind, constructing an entire suburb for the good commuters of Milan, and then considerately setting up a cable-television station specifically to serve it.

So he can be described as a man of the people? Not entirely. He graduated in law from Milan University, although he gave a sign of things to come by presenting a thesis on Advertising and Publicity. Since then his taste for buying and setting up low-brow private television stations has made him a hero of the telly-addicted Italian masses. Known as Sua Emittenza, his emittance, his golden touch in business has translated into a lifestyle associated with royalty, except that his private life has been kept more sacrosanct.

So he is really hot on family values? Very. He compares a good prime minister to a conscientious father, keeping the family accounts and looking after his little ones. Commentators who haven't gagged on that one are worried about a possible excess of hubris should his allies agree to make him prime minister. On the other hand, he should know about family values. He has five children, two from his first marriage, and three born before he married their mother, his second wife, a minor actress called Veronica Lario, in 1990.

Where does he live, if so prosaic a word can be used? As befits the man voted Milanese of the Year in 1988, Mr Berlusconi has an 18th-century villa in Brianza, a well-heeled area within commuting distance of Milan.

The highest achievers in his publishing house, Mondadori, are reportedly given a tour of the house by the man himself, including a chance to be spat on by the maestro's pet llamas. The tour normally concludes with a lavish dinner and the gift of a pounds 1,000 watch each.

What does he really stand for in his politics? Privatisation, lower taxes, lower spending and almost anything else you can dig out of old Tory manifestoes. Ultimately, no one has inquired too closely.

What about stories concerning a shady past? Like almost anyone who has become anyone in Italy, Mr Berlusconi has one, although nothing really serious has ever stuck. Potentially most damaging is that the disgraced leader of the Socialist Party, Bettino Craxi, is an old friend, and godfather to one of his children. Seasoned poll-watchers saw the hand of Mr Craxi behind an extremely deft political campaign. Opponents say the former Socialist leader is using Mr Berlusconi as his front-man. Certainly Mr Berlusconi owes him a few favours. His media empire expanded enormously under a series of benevolent Socialist administrations.

There is also the matter of his one-time membership of the outlawed P2 Masonic Lodge. Mr Berlusconi's reply is typical: he says he only joined at the request of a friend and that when the membership papers arrived he was so outraged that they said Guild of Masons while he considered himself a superior sort of property developer, that he binned them there and then.

(Photograph omitted)