Silvio Berlusconi's long, slow fade to black

For decades, Silvio Berlusconi used his massive wealth to ride roughshod over Italian politics, Don Murray writes. But his attempted 'coup' this month failed spectacularly, and now he faces expulsion from the Senate and a conviction for tax fraud. Is this really the end of Italy's playboy politician?

The rise and fall of Italy's 'bunga-bunga' man

Flanked by bodyguards and carrying his pet dog, Silvio Berlusconi is shown here entering one of his palatial Rome residences in September, just hours after threatening to bring down the Letta coalition government. A week later, however, enough of his own party rebelled to keep the coalition functioning. (Reuters)

"Italy will never lack men who can astound the world."

Those are the words of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the liberator of Sicily and Naples in the 19th century, a military hero and one of the founders of modern Italy.

Silvio Berlusconi has certainly astounded the world, but perhaps not in the way Garibaldi had hoped.

When he leapt onto the political stage almost 20 years ago from his position as media magnate and mega-property developer, he announced, "I am tired of being Silvio Berlusconi, I want a heroic life."

Heroically, he said he would clean up the putrid mess that was Italian politics, he would strike down the mafia, he would put the nation's finances in order.

He even hinted he would reach into his own deep pockets if necessary — $15 billion deep — to aid in the financial clean-up.

A few years later, the self-appointed hero upped his pay grade; he described himself as "the Lord's Anointed."

Today, at 77, the Lord's Anointed is a convicted criminal, and an all-party committee of the Italian Senate voted last week to throw him out.

In the summer, the Italian Supreme court upheld his conviction for tax fraud, but he will avoid prison thanks to his age and Italian judicial clemency; instead he had the choice of house arrest for a year in one of his vast palaces or community service for the same period.

He chose community service and is waiting to see if the court agrees, probably at some point next year.

Ah, but the shame.

Silvio Berlusconi's current girlfriend, Francesca Pascale, 28, joins a demonstration of supporters protesting against Berlusconi's seven-year jail sentence in June for cavorting with an underage prostitute. (Reuters)

Or perhaps not. This, after all, was not Berlusconi's only conviction and certainly not his only scandal. In the last year alone, he has been found guilty of three different crimes, notably in June for paying an underage prostitute (she was 17) for sex.

This last case offered Italians a glimpse of what its participants called the "bunga-bunga" world of Silvio Berlusconi. These were sex parties with the former prime minister at the centre of them and women paid handsomely for their services.

One woman who performed a striptease dressed as a nun was rewarded with a very good job in the Lombardy regional government when Berlusconi was prime minister.

An 'Italian story'

And yet, despite the scandals and criminal convictions, Berlusconi has been prime minister three times and the dominant figure in Italian politics for two decades. What was his attraction?

Consider: in the 2001 election campaign, almost every voter received a glossy picture book called An Italian Story.

It was, in fact, Berlusconi's story — his rise from relative poverty, his crooning on cruise ships to pay for his studies, his remarkable business success, his meetings with popes and lesser mortals, all of it packaged and paid for by Berlusconi himself.

His party won the election handily.

Commentators said Berlusconi had sold himself as an "uomo qualunque" — an ordinary Joe who, equipped with a big smile, made it.

He was an anti-politician whose gaffes and outrageous comments and actions proved his everyman status.

He sold the voters the dream that if he could rise so could they.

He also personalized politics, thanks to his control of all of Italy's private television networks, to such an extent that one of his opponents wailed that every election had become a referendum on one man.

Rise again?

The reality was somewhat different. In the early 1970s, when he was starting out, Berlusconi's small company built a garden suburb of 3,500 houses and apartments called Milan 2 in marshland near the Milan airport. Where did he get the capital?

The whispers started that it was laundered money, that he had links to the mafia.

Those became headlines 30 years later when a mafia boss told Italian prosecutors that mob leaders opened up channels to Berlusconi's party as soon as it was founded in 1993.

Berlusconi said the claims were part of an organized smear campaign by those who wanted to block his efforts at reform.

One of his business colleagues offered a starker assessment. If Berlusconi hadn't gone into politics, he said, he'd have ended up in jail or under a bridge, the latter a reference to the corrupt banker Roberto Calvi who was found hanging under a bridge in London in 1982. Police believe he was murdered.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta (L) and Vice-Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, once Berlusconi's top man, talk during a confidence vote earlier this month when party figures defied the billionaire media tycoon and backed Letta. (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

By most assessments, Berlusconi did little to clean up the country's corruption or financial mess. And his critics count no fewer than 18 laws that allowed him or his colleagues to escape criminal convictions, or that reinforced his business empire.

Still, the man is a master performer, and as Luigi Barzini, the author of The Italians, explained 50 years ago, his countrymen "are tempted to applaud more those performances which stray dangerously far from reality."

Today, though, reality intrudes. Italy has been a huge laggard in economic growth, particularly since 2002, the year the euro was introduced, and its public debt is groaning.

Prime minister for most of this last decade, Berlusconi can't avoid being tagged with responsibility.

The face-lifts, the make-up and hair transplants can't mask the fact that he is an old man. His grip on his party and its allies is weakening.

He had to retreat in humiliating fashion from his threat to bring down the Italian government at the end of September when more than 30 members of his party refused to back him.

Old, weakened, convicted. But politically dead? Italy has seen stranger political resurrections.

Garibaldi, shortly before his death in 1882, wrote, "it is a very different Italy from the one I dreamed of, not the humiliated country ruled by the dregs of the nation."

His scathing verdict seems relevant again today.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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