High Seas High Jinks: Berlusconi Emerges from Hiding on Cruise Ship

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Silvio Berlusconi, 76, hadn't made an appearance in public in two and a half months, causing some to wonder whether he'd grown weary of politics. Then he showed up on board an ocean liner -- with a new girlfriend -- and Italian media are again abuzz over whether the media mogul and billionaire will seek to make a political comeback or not.

Photo Gallery: Campaigning at Sea Photos
DPA

The Ruby Princess is docked alongside the ship, his gossip rag Chi is set to fly off the racks with its nude photos of British royal Kate Middleton, and his football club, AC Milan, could very well win its match that evening. As always, everything is interconnected with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

It's mid-September, and the crowds are cheering in Venice harbor as Berlusconi boards the cruise ship MSC Divina. Francesca Pascale, a 27-year-old former showgirl and now a former member of the regional council, follows closely behind him.

Berlusconi looks rested, having just returned from a luxury resort in Kenya owned by his friend Flavio Briatore. He had a lot of time to think while he was there. Berlusconi hasn't made a public appearance in 72 days, the newspapers he owns have calculated impatiently. Polls show his party at only about 19 percent, prompting Berlusconi to step in and do something -- which is one of the reasons he is boarding the ship.

In Germany, politicians who want to be elected talk about bailout funds for banks or make an appearance at Oktoberfest in Munich. Not so in Italy.

The Divina, sailing under the Panamanian flag, has 20 bars, 7 restaurants, 12 whirlpools and a nightclub on the 16th deck. Berlusconi's comeback tour passes through crisis-ridden southern Europe, from Venice to ancient Olympia to Istanbul and back. It's a trip with his most loyal fans, the readers of Il Giornale, the biggest political smear sheet in Italy, owned by his brother Paolo. A campaign on board the ship, with dancing and revelry, is something no other politician could afford to do.

Cruise to Victory?

Berlusconi's advisors chose the timing of the cruise with care. Italy's parliamentary election is set for next April, and the campaign has just begun. A few days ago, Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence, set off on a tour of the country in a camper. Renzi is the man who could pose the biggest threat to the ex-premier, because he is young and on the political left.

Berlusconi has already had one success on the high seas. It was in 2000, on a campaign tour with his mother Rosa, 89 at the time, on the Libertà. The voyage hit rough waters and Berlusconi fell ill, and the next year he won the election. A lot has happened since then, and many hope that Italy is a different country today. Berlusconi resigned, and since then technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti has been trying to reform Italy. But Monti has already announced that he probably won't run for election next spring.

Berlusconi apparently feels that it's time to return to his roots, and he happens to be passionate about cruise ships. Everyone in Italy knows that when he was a law student in the 1950s, Berlusconi worked as a crooner and holiday entertainer on Mediterranean cruise ships during the summers.

There are shouts on board as the 400 Il Giornale readers, hardly able to believe their good fortune, finally come face to face with their idol. Berlusconi, with thinning hair and a slight paunch, tells three jokes, which they already know yet laugh at all the same. They are ordinary people from northern Italy, people who, like Berlusconi, are in their mid-70s. Many are housewives, his most ardent admirers. Spending a few days on a ship with them is a good way to learn a great deal about Italians, about their longings and how easily seduced they are, about how disappointed they are with politics and how anxious they are about the crisis.

A slim woman from Treviso touches Berlusconi's arm and whispers: "Grazie di esistere," essentially thanking him for being alive. There's a song by Italian pop star Eros Ramazzotti in which he sings the same line. A former teacher asks: "Silvio, are you running again? "La prego," or "I implore you." A 96-year-old woman tells him how happy she is that she had a hip operation earlier than planned so that she could make the trip. "If I die now, it will be with you."

The Silvio Show

The gala dinner begins later than scheduled. Berlusconi has been watching soccer in his cabin. AC Milan lost, and now he is sitting next to the captain, a deeply tanned man named Bossi. The fans take snapshots of Berlusconi with their iPads, pictures of him eating and flirting, but he enjoys it. It's well after midnight as the ship glides silently through the starry night.

The only drop of bitterness on this evening is that Berlusconi himself will not be singing. Popular Neapolitan singer Mariano Apicella, a favorite of the former prime minister flown in for the occasion, performs for the crowd. Berlusconi instead uses the occasion to let the world know that he has a new girlfriend. Photos of Berlusconi with Francesca, the woman sitting next to him and presumably his new paramour, appear online that same night.

The Silvio Show continues the next morning in the Pantheon, a theater on board the Divina. Berlusconi sits down in front of a glittering curtain, crosses his legs and tells the story of his life. He talks about how he became what he is today: a billionaire media mogul, owner of a football club, lady-killer and defendant. He talks for three hours, usually referring to himself in the third person.

He also relates a few new anecdotes, which may or may not be true but are cleverly conceived nonetheless. In one story, he tells his audience how, as a boy, he would take pictures at funerals, develop them in his bathtub and sell them, a business that proved to be so profitable that he soon became a wedding photographer.

There's No Crisis in Silvio's World

He's still a brilliant speaker, delivering his words with grand gestures and without pause. There is no crisis in Silvio Berlusconi's world. He cracks jokes, flirts and constantly moves his foot up and down. He seems fit, and there is no trace of the depression that reportedly afflicts him.

The editor-in-chief of Il Giornale, who is supposed to be interviewing Berlusconi, has one of Italy's sharpest tongues and is the creator of such headlines as "Fourth Reich," "Lard Ass Merkel," and "We have Schettino, you have Auschwitz." But the man can hardly get a word in edgewise. For Il Cavaliere, he is nothing more than the court dwarf.

There is a photo of Berlusconi when he couldn't have been more than 20, singing into a microphone and looking like a young Frank Sinatra. He talks a lot about those days on the Divina. He talks about his stints on cruise ships. "I was an activities coordinator in the morning, a tour guide at lunchtime and in the evening I performed as 'Dani Daniel,' singing French pop songs." He smiles as he mentions the pianist in the band, his best friend Fedele, who apparently fired him because he was spending too much time dancing with the girls, only to soon realize that the band was nothing without Berlusconi. Today Fedele Confalonieri, 75, is the head of Berlusconi's media company, Mediaset.

"Berlusconi is our role model," say two sisters, businesswomen from Lombardy. "He is so shrewd and industrious, and yet he always savors life."

"A man who speaks so fondly of his mamma can't be a bad person," says a woman from Venice.

"Enough with the old stories!" says a woman in the first row. "Are you going to talk about politics, too?"

That's exactly what he then does for the last half hour. He says that, of course, he wants to lower taxes, and that he still intends to beat the Communists. He rages against the euro and the Germans, "those hegemons, with their anally retentive saving." He rages against Beppe Grillo, the founder of the Five Star Movement, "a comedian who is always telling the same jokes." Mario Monti gets his come-uppance, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for once, is spared.

"Are you getting back into politics?" the editor-in-chief asks.

"I never left," says Berlusconi. "I work hard for my country, from the morning until 2 a.m. the next morning. If the election law is reformed, Berlusconi will think about his future role. One thing is clear: He will not turn Italy over to the leftists!,'" he says in the third person.

The crowd cheers. Berlusconi still hasn't decided to make his comeback, but his fans believe there is hope.

Another Scandal Breaks

The next day, Il Giornale runs a cover story titled "Berlusconi Unveils his Plan." As always, it's an exaggeration. He doesn't really have a plan. He is clinging to power because his empire is faltering and the so-called "Ruby the Heart-Stealer" trial is underway. He is charged with abuse of office and promoting prostitution among minors after allegedly having paid a 17-year-old Moroccan-born nightclub dancer for sex. The reasons that drove him into politics 18 years ago are still valid today, but whether they will bring him back remains questionable.

He steps down the gangway to thundering applause. His escort party is waiting for him at the harbor in the southern city of Bari, and Berlusconi throws air kisses up to his fans as they wave to him from the ship's railing.

As always in Italy, the story isn't over yet. A few days after the cruise, the media report on a scandal involving the embezzlement of public funds, describing in detail how some of Berlusconi's fellow party members in the western region of Latium used party funds to pay for lavish banquets. Photos accompany the stories, illustrating the decline of a corrupt caste in all its decadence.

But hardly any of Berlusconi's fans on the Divina read the stories, as they dance by the poolside and, at sundown, sit on the deck and argue. One man says: "He won't run again. He's too old and he has too many problems." Another one says: "If not Berlusconi, who else? Only Silvio can save Italy."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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