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Man in the News: Silvio Berlusconi

February 1, 2008

By Guy Dinmore

Published on FT February 1 2008

He has slipped down the rankings of the world’s richest, the courts are still in hot pursuit and political obituaries were written when he fainted on stage and slid slowly to the floor just over a year ago.

More recently, his successors-in-waiting were impatiently sharpening their knives after he dismissed them as “ectoplasm”.

So even Italians are marvelling at how Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and leader of the centre-right opposition, can seemingly be on course for a triumphant return to power at the head of the same old coalition.

Such is his longevity that should Mr Berlusconi prove the polls right and win a third term as prime minister – and, as yet, no date for elections is set – then in 2009 he would host his third Group of Eight summit, to be held on an island near his Sardinian villa, following Naples in 1994 and Genoa in 2001.

When critics and even allies say Italy needs a new generation at the top, friends point out that he is one month younger than 71-year-old John McCain, the US senator who might yet join him on that sunny isle.

Modern science has led to Mr Berlusconi looking even younger and having more hair than in 2006, when he lost by only 24,000 votes to Romano Prodi, whose centre-left government collapsed after defections last week.

“I am still one of the people who understands the people,” the billionaire businessman (ranked by Forbes as the world’s 51st richest) declared to a crowd of adoring and mostly young fans in Rome in mid-November when he launched his new party.

This is still his populist image: the maverick entrepreneur who successfully presented himself as the anti-politician against the broken old order in 1994; the anti-communist defender of freedoms; the self-made, football-loving family man, making constant visits to his ailing, 97-year-old mother Rosa in Milan.

But five years in power from 2001 to 2006 – the longest any post-war Italian prime minister has served at one stretch – eroded the popular fascination as incomes stagnated, his coalition bickered and Italian soldiers died in what was widely seen as a senseless war of vanity in Iraq. His clowning on the foreign stage did not help, either.

Much of parliament’s time was spent getting Mr Berlusconi and his cronies out of legal trouble. Only this week, a Milan court cleared him on charges related to the sale of a food conglomerate in the 1980s. The court said allegations of false accounting were no longer valid because a law passed by his government in 2002 redefined the offence. “If Berlusconi wins these elections, falsifying balance sheets will become a national sport,’’ commented Giovanni Russo Spena, a communist senator. Lawyers for Mr Berlusconi, who portrays his many court cases and investigations as leftwing vendettas, say he would have been acquitted anyway.

Buoyed by opinion polls giving his coalition a solid lead, Mr Berlusconi is understandably pressing for snap elections, or at least a central role in an interim government that would first change the voting system.

On closer reading, however, Mr Berlusconi’s own numbers do not look so robust. His Forza Italia party is just ahead of the new Democratic Party led by Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome who is in line to replace Mr Prodi at the centre-left helm.

Asked who they most trust to run Italy, an equal number of respondents (17 per cent) named Mr Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini, his ally and leader of the post-fascist National Alliance. Mr Veltroni polled 16 per cent.

Mr Berlusconi’s strength has three pillars: the skills he honed in office that made him part of the system, his power as a $12bn media mogul controlling television and newspapers, and the weaknesses of Mr Prodi’s coalition. He can be shameless and calculating, say his friends, but also endearing and attentive. He loves to take risks.

Nino Randazzo, elected senator in 2006 for a vast constituency embracing even Antarctica, described to the FT how Mr Berlusconi offered him safe re-election and a job as a future deputy foreign minister should he vote against Mr Prodi in the November budget debate. “He told me the boat was sinking,” recalls Mr Randazzo, who declined the offer, saying he could swim.

Mr Berlusconi did not give up after his failure to carry out his repeated promises to bring down Mr Prodi over the budget. Instead, the master tactician diverted headlines from his setback by announcing the rebranding of Forza Italia as “People of Liberty”, challenging his allies to get in line and brazenly entering into talks with Mr Veltroni on electoral reform.

The results were astounding. Mr Fini, who was furious at the way Mr Berlusconi’s television channel had treated his younger partner, eventually fell into line, as did Pier Ferdinando Casini, another potential leader of the centre-right. “Berlusconi’s technique is to have lots of Dauphins. But it is all a pretence and none is likely to succeed him,” commented Piero Testoni, a member of parliament for Forza Italia.

On the government side, the overture to Mr Veltroni drove wedges through the centre-left coalition. Small parties that feared loss of power through electoral reform got ready to jump ship, and eventually brought Mr Prodi down in the senate vote of confidence on January 24.

Now, Mr Berlusconi’s camp is hinting at a future “grand alliance” with the Democratic party, an offer guaranteed once again to create internal rifts. Mr Berlusconi is also letting it be known that he would serve as prime minister for part of a term and then move on, perhaps to become president. Another feint? Unsure.

Tactics aside, it is Mr Berlusconi’s media empire that gives him enduring influence. Apart from his three Mediaset channels, the magnate still has considerable influence within Rai, the state broadcaster, as shown by recently leaked telephone intercepts in which he is heard asking an editor for favours.

One senior official preparing to pack his bags said the Prodi government had been steadily undermined in public opinion by the crafting of negative news flow. Reflecting the anger of many on the left, he asked how it was possible that in the years when Mr Berlusconi was out of power, successive centre-left governments failed to defang him by passing laws to address conflicts of interest between holding public office and owning the media. “Berlusconi is a threat to democracy,” he fumed.

More communist scare-mongering, counters Mr Berlusconi. Just bring on the elections and let the people decide.

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