Perhaps the most telling aspect in the entire Felliniesque narrative that is Silvio Berlusconi's political life is not so much the man's tenacity at holding power as the relative indifference with which Italians seem to accept the entire sordid saga.

Elsewhere in the world, an elected leader facing widespread ridicule, conflict of interest or, now, the likely resumption of corruptions charges would be pressured to resign, as was the case with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this year.


Unbowed: Silvio Berlusconi during a press conference at the Chigi palace, the day after the Constitutional Court revoked his immunity from prosecution. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

But in Italy, now that the country's constitutional court has revoked Berlusconi's claim to immunity from prosecution, the prime minister responds by chiding "bad journalists," claiming leftist plots and, as the New York Times reported, "cheering himself by chanting 'long live Italy, long live Berlusconi.'"

Never one to admit wrongdoing, Berlusconi even went on to accuse President Giorgio Napolitano of conspiring against him, by stacking the courts with leftist judges.

Never mind the grumblings within his own centre-right coalition, Berlusconi insists on turning up the hyperbole: "I'm the best leader this country has had in 150 years," he gushed recently.

Never mind the mysterious posters popping up in certain Italian cities (and in Manhattan) with Berlusconi's face cleverly in place of Al Capone's under the title The Untouchable.

And never mind the online petition in La Repubblica (the Berlusconi media group's arch-rival) with over 450,000 signatures, including those of seven Nobel Prize winners and such high-profile figures as Bernardo Bertolucci, Umberto Eco, Martin Amis, John Torturro and Helen Mirren.

Throughout this now months-long saga, the majority of Italians have remained silent.

Indeed, Berlusconi's popularity is still hovering around the 50 per cent mark, according to a recent poll in an opposition paper. (On one of his own TV stations last week he claimed he and his party have 68.7 per cent support!)

On being persecuted

"The numbers speak for themselves: Ever since I got into politics there have been 109 trials, more than 2,500 hearings, 530 searches and acquisition of documents by judicial authorities, and I have had to spend more than 200 million euros to pay consultants and lawyers." — Berlusconi in an interview following the immunity decision with news channel TG5, which is part of his media empire.

Whatever the numbers, a sure sign of the man's unnerving political hold is that the coalition comprising the main opposition Democratic party seems fractured by infighting and has yet to elect a new leader more than six months after its previous one resigned.

Why is he getting such a free ride?


Yes, thousands of women have responded with anger and embarrassment to the prime minister's many sexist faux pas. (Including greeting a visiting Michelle Obama with hand motions that the Huffington Post likened to a come-to-papa gesture.)

But, as many European dailies have suggested, the majority of Italians still seem unfazed by the shame that Berlusconi is bringing to his own party and to Italy as a whole.

It is unclear whether this is a sign that the country, hypnotized by an onslaught of reality television, fails to see what's happening around them as of any "real" consequence.

Or perhaps whether Italians merely cannot come to admit that they themselves are responsible for the devil they know: They in fact voted the man into office — twice.


Come to papa? Barack Obama does not appear amused during the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in September 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Whatever the answer, Silvio's saga seems to point to a long-standing predisposition in Italy of valuing style over substance, an updated dolce vita in which success seems attainable without apparent effort or the required talent.

Pop culture

Italy's pop culture seems to encourage these dreams, both for the idle young seeking quick fame and fortune and for aging, rotund men who are improbably portrayed as sex objects to youthful, leggy blonds.

To many in Italy then, Berlusconi may well represent all of their suppressed longings.

As media commentator Gianluca Nicoletti observed in Il Sole 24 Ore, "If today Berlusconi acted more normally I'd say he had gone crazy."

A larger than life character, Berlusconi began modestly, as a cruise ship crooner, and slowly built a multi-billion dollar empire that today includes numerous newspapers and television stations, sport teams and insurance agencies.

His media holdings alone, combined with his indirect control over state TV and radio means he effectively dominates the vast majority of information and pop culture that Italians consume.

He divorced his first wife and remarried Veronica Lario (who herself just recently demanded a divorce), a beautiful actress who he met while she was performing topless.

The immunity decision

On Oct. 7, 2009, Italy's Constitutional court struck down a law that Berlusconi enacted in April 2008, granting him and other senior politicians immunity from prosecution while in office. It was the second such Berlusconi-enacted law, both of which have now been struck down.

The ruling is expected to reopen Berlusconi's involvement in previous corruption trials concerning his vast media and real estate holdings, including a recent case in which David Mills, his British, former tax lawyer, was found guilty of accepting a $600,000 payment from a Berlusconi company in exchange for false testimony. Mills was sentenced in February 2009 to four and a half years in jail.

He continued his dalliances while married and still admits to enjoying the presence of women today, well into his 73rd year.

"I'm no saint," Berlusconi blurted to the media recently — in what can be seen as another stab at vanity or a rare moment of self-confession.

Accountability lacking

The true cause of the jaundiced attitude on the part of so many Italians may never be known. But it is possible that what they find attractive about Berlusconi is his innate ability to escape retribution.

Whether this stems from his blurring of the line between fiction and reality; or from a long legacy of Mafia and government corruption that has created an ethos of dishonesty — how many Italians really do report their full incomes and pay taxes? — the repercussions are dire.

Indeed, as the New York Times observed recently, despite all the recent drama, few Italian commentators predict a radical change of government.

Even fewer, it should be noted, have raised the question of what this sad saga says about the country and its inhabitants themselves.

Sebastian DeGrandis is a Toronto-based writer who closely follows Italian affairs.