Profile: Italy's arch seducer: Silvio Berlusconi. Italians wanted a new party; he sold them one

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI has not yet revealed the style in which he intends to govern Italy but his second wife, the actress Veronica Lario, seems sure enough. 'I believe that in this election it was the man who won,' she said. 'People voted for Silvio Berlusconi, they rewarded the life story of this man. It's not a victory of the right wing, it's a victory of the man. People don't believe in political parties any more. They want men of calibre to believe in.'

It is possible that Bob Lasagna, the genius from Saatchi & Saatchi who masterminded the Berlusconi campaign, might have welcomed the chance to rewrite these unscripted observations by the wife of the man likely to become the next Prime Minister of the Italian Republic. But in her striking way, Ms Lario has unerringly illuminated the philosophy - if such it is - that lay behind her husband's stunning victory. It was a triumph built on dreams, promises, relentless optimism, a soothing manner and plausible charm. Berlusconi showed Italians a lifestyle that many people's fantasies are made of: fast cars, luxurious homes, five children (two by his first wife, three by Ms Lario) and a business empire built around television stations on which glamorous women pout and disrobe. There are many nicknames for Berlusconi but the best came in a Rome newspaper headline last week which dubbed him 'The Great Seducer'.

Silvio Berlusconi was born 57 years ago, the son of a bank employee in Milan who dispatched his offspring to a strict religious school. There is the usual crop of tales intended to show him as a fledgling entrepreneur: he did his classmates' homework for a fee; he paid his way through law studies by selling vacuum cleaners and performing as a crooner on a cruise ship. Then there came a mysterious transformation.

In the next phase of Berlusconi's career he turned into a property developer with money borrowed from his father's bank. The Milanese real-estate market was booming and Berlusconi quickly acquired not only the knack of the deal but the political connections to assist him. In the Seventies he conceived and built the satellite city of Milano Due - a kind of Italian Milton Keynes. With great prescience, he had the entire development wired for cable television. The seeds of both ideas and profits were growing.

Within 20 years, Berlusconi had converted his property business into a vast conglomerate called Fininvest. It is second only to Bertelsmann of Germany as a European media empire. It is the third largest private group in Italy with an estimated turnover for 1993 of almost pounds 5bn. It controls almost 90 per cent of Italian private television, with a grip on almost half the national audience. Fininvest extends into supermarkets, insurance, advertising, book publishing, magazines and financial services. To complete this all-Italian success story, Berlusconi bought control of AC Milan and transformed it into the most dazzling football team in the history of Italian soccer. Now he says that he can apply this brilliant acumen to rescue Italy from left-wing tyranny, debt and unemployment. Can he?

'He has been proved right once again because Silvio's the greatest salesman,' said Fedele Confalonieri, one of Berlusconi's associates. 'Italians wanted a new political party. He created it in three months and he sold it to them.'

There is no doubt of Berlusconi's commercial and political talent. The doubts arise about his mentality, his methods, his friends - and his debts. The author Luigi Barzini quotes with amusement an old English lady, long resident in the peninsula, who used to wag her finger at him and say: 'There is some Cagliostro and some Casanova in every Italian, even in those you'd suspect the least.' In Berlusconi's case the zeal of Casanova seems safely channelled into the output of his television shows. It is the influence of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro that is more intriguing. Cagliostro's real name was Giuseppe Balsamo. He was a Sicilian quack who took 18th-century Rome by storm. He claimed to possess metaphysical powers, dispensed miraculous rejuvenating potions and promised to turn water into wine, lead into gold or beads into precious stones. For a while he enjoyed riches and fame. But his frauds caught up with him and he was exposed after failing to double the size of the diamond in a cardinal's ring.

Berlusconi does not claim to have a magic touch. He has never needed one. Early on in the Seventies he cemented an alliance with Bettino Craxi, then a rising socialist politician in Milan. The socialist connections helped Berlusconi's business interests in the city. When Craxi became prime minister during the Eighties, his influence proved the key to Berlusconi's dramatic expansion in private television. Craxi was godfather to one of Berlusconi's children and when Craxi fell from grace, Berlusconi was publicly at his side. Craxi went on trial for corruption last week, vigorously denying all allegations against him.

But Berlusconi did not rely on socialism alone to secure his ascent to the ranks of the billionaires. On 26 January 1978, he joined the secret masonic lodge known as Propaganda Due, or P2. This was an illegal, conspiratorial group dedicated to preserving Italy from communism, a state within a state whose tentacles extended into the armed forces, the banks, the government and the secret services. It is known to have colluded with the Mafia, conspired with terrorists and laundered money. Berlusconi said he thought it was just like joining the Rotary Club. He maintains that he met its founder only once and he never took part in its activities. But in Berlusconi's rise to power, opponents see the shadows of P2. So is Berlusconi truly the new broom, or just the bad old system, reinventing itself?

Berlusconi poses as an apostle of the free market. He says that the public finances, which are disastrous, should be put right. He promises efficient business management to reform the tired bureaucracy. But Fininvest is itself a monument to the Italian business practices of the last four decades. It flourished only in a television market rigged by politicians and designed to secure what is, in effect, a monopoly. Its debts have multiplied more than tenfold since 1988 and total group indebtedness is about pounds 1.58bn. Partly under pressure from the banks, Berlusconi appointed a new chief executive, Franco Tato, who says: 'Fininvest is a typical product of the Eighties boom.' If the left had come to power, Fininvest would have faced catastrophe, because the opposition was committed to an anti-trust law and to impose restrictions on Berlusconi's media power. Now it is all-powerful.

Berlusconi sought to evade accusations of conflict of interest by resigning from all his managerial posts in the company when he entered politics. This was a sham. He and his family still control 51 per cent of the group via 22 holding units and they own all the remaining stock through two trust companies set up by the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, an enterprise owned by the state and traditionally controlled by Craxi's socialist party.

Berlusconi himself has never been touched by allegations of corruption. But he says his company offices have been searched by the police on 86 occasions. His brother Paolo is under investigation by magistrates on charges of bribing Milanese politicians to get development approval. And, in a move denounced by Berlusconi as political persecution, magistrates have questioned four Fininvest executives about illegal payments allegedly delivered to the old political parties which Berlusconi purports to replace.

There is no word in Italian for Teflon. But Berlusconi exhibits all the campaign characteristics of Ronald Reagan and an equal ability to shrug off inconvenience or embarrassment. As he nears the prime minister's office, he is also acquiring Margaret Thatcher's tendency to condition what is said and written about him. He refuses to answer questions put to him by The Economist's correspondent in Rome, for the British weekly has been critical of his economic programme. He refused to appear on one talk show until the producers withdrew their invitation to an American correspondent who is not only well-informed about Berlusconi's past but speaks Italian fluently.

A much more ominous note was struck by his treatment of the grand old man of Italian journalism, Indro Montanelli. This octogenarian gadfly set up and edited his own paper, Il Giornale. It was published in Milan and defied slender resources to strike a distinctive note in the country's public life. Eventually Montanelli was obliged to sell to Berlusconi, a process accompanied by the customary assurances of mutual esteem and journalistic integrity. The editor continued in his post. Berlusconi then had to sell Il Giornale to comply with a new law limiting cross-holdings of newspaper and television interests. So he sold it to his brother Paolo. When Berlusconi entered the political race, Montanelli declined to endorse him with suitable enthusiasm. Paolo was unhappy. There was a row and Montanelli left. Undaunted, he stalked off with his brightest journalists and set up another paper, La Voce, which promptly sold out on the newsstands. Many Italians said bravo for Montanelli, but they worried at the same time what trust might conceivably be reposed in the assurances of Berlusconi.

The Great Seducer understands his countrymen, or at least a section of them, with gifted insight. It is not the Italy that gave the world Garibaldi or Michelangelo. Berlusconi grasped instinctively the truth so apparent to the ad men who crafted the winning Tory campaigns in Britain. He identified a section of the population who aspired chiefly to greater material gain. He talked of lower taxes and easy reward. He disdained the political and intellectual elite, simply vaulting over them directly on to his own TV screens. His most brilliant stroke was to organise his campaign as a series of clubs, just like the AC Milan supporters' clubs. Football, television and consumer goods sum up the Berlusconi credo. And he called his movement simply 'Forza Italia'. The best translation in English for Forza is the most colloquial: 'Go for it]'

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