Berlusconi Redux: Will the 'Jesus Christ of Politics' Rise Again?
Silvio Berlusconi had Italy in his grip for two decades before personal and political crises forced him to step aside. Opponents may hate him and supporters may admire him, but one things seems increasingly possible: The macho clown may seek a political comeback.
"I'm climbing back into the ring," Silvio Berlusconi says, claiming that he wants to save his party. "Without me, they will sink."
His country, too, apparently needs him more than ever. His "sacrifice for Italy" -- a reference to his forced resignation in November -- was in vain, he says. Under his successor, Mario Monti, "nothing has improved."
He is no longer talking about leaving this "shitty country," as he said last summer. There is supposedly no other way -- he has to get involved again.
That's why he's on a diet and jogs regularly to get into shape. He's working on a new name for his "People of Freedom," as his party is currently called, and is looking for allies in the worlds of politics and business. He plans to build a "galaxy of the new center-right," he says. And people in Italy are taking him seriously.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 75, is seeking the limelight yet again. The internal party votes that were intended to choose the most promising candidates and planned for the fall have now been cancelled. His personally chosen successor as party leader has also been cleared out of the way. He has announced a new "liberal revolution."
International observers watching the old man's new show are perplexed. Why, they ask themselves, did the Italians not kick this terrible man out once and for all years ago? How can it be possible that half of Italy is talking about a Berlusconi comeback?
A Need for Power
According to economics professor and former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who once chased Berlusconi out of office for two years with a center-left coalition, he "embodies all those who double-park." And in Italy, he adds, that is the majority. "These people are allergic to laws." Thanks to Berlusconi, Prodi says, they no longer have to feel embarrassed about their misdemeanors.
Admittedly, there are also plenty of Italians who find Berlusconi embarrassing, with his jokes, his scandals and his policies that have led Italy to the brink of economic disaster. They are tired of the little man who wears 8-centimeter (3-inch) heels to make himself look taller and who has hair transplants to make himself look less bald. He is a man who lets prostitutes address him as "amore" and "darling" -- as anyone can hear for themselves online, where recordings of Berlusconi's telephone conversations have been posted. Many Italians hoped that his era might finally be over for good.
But Il Cavaliere, as Berlusconi likes to be called, clearly has different ideas. After all, he needs more political power in order to do things like stabilize his media empire. That has been crumbling lately, particularly since he resigned as prime minister. And Berlusconi needs time to solve his legal problems.
He doesn't necessarily need to be prime minister to do these things. But he does need to be powerful enough to have a blocking minority in parliament, in case he needs it. That's why he is making a comeback. And he's doing so in his familiar style and with the same slogans.
"There is only me. I am the only one who can save everything," he called out to his supporters a few weeks ago. According to Berlusconi, Prime Minister Mario Monti is not "a normal person like us," but one of those people who can't do anything. Berlusconi has a simple solution for getting out of the crisis: The Italian central bank should start printing money -- lire, if necessary.
A Population Divided
When it comes to Berlusconi, the Italian population is divided into fanatical supporters and ardent opponents. "He is the most loved person and also the most hated," says political scientist Ilvo Diamanti. Almost every political discussion in Italy is still mainly about one subject: Berlusconi. The man is omnipresent.
The same holds true for the Internet. His Facebook page has over 430,000 "likes." His main opponent, Pier Luigi Bersani, the head of the center-left Democratic Party, only has 78,000. The widely respected technocrat Monti, meanwhile, has to make do with little more than 2,000 likes on his Facebook page.
Another part of the Berlusconi phenomenon is that, for many Italians, he embodies the great dream of rags to riches, the capitalist promise that anyone can make it. This son of a bank employee would go on to amass what at times were tens of billions of dollars. He is an idol, a glimmer of hope for many a sad life.
From the very first day, Berlusconi and his "Forza Italia" movement have roughed up the country's political landscape. Its recipe for success has been savagely attacking and cowing opponents while attracting attention at any price. "I am a political revolutionary," he once said, adding that he is "politically incorrect."
In his own mind at least, Berlusconi knows and can do everything. In his guise as an economic expert, he has professed simple ways to spontaneously heal Italy's economy. As a gardener, he has held forth on the plant world. And he has lectured architects on how to build.
Although the films change, his role is always the same. Today, he is the macho show-off who brags about having a line of girls 13 deep waiting outside his door. Tomorrow, he is the successful businessman. The day after, he is the politician who compares his farsightedness to that of Churchill, Napoleon and Mussolini. The scenes may seem new, but the script is always the same: I am the greatest, and I've got the most there is to have in both my head and my pants. Even humility is merely a role. At a dinner with business executives in 2006, he said: "I am the Jesus Christ of politics, a patient victim. I endure everything; I sacrifice myself for everyone."
Lies and Excuses
In reality, Berlusconi has turned out to be a notorious liar. Why did taxes constantly go up during his period in power although he had pledged in every election campaign to lower them? Of course, he vehemently denies this. But what about all his other promises: to create new jobs, to channel billions toward better schools and universities, to lower government debt, to build a bridge to Sicily, to quickly rebuild L'Aquila after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2009? He didn't keep any of them.
And whenever he can no longer lie about a given problem, he whips out the old excuse that even Mussolini once used, saying that Italy is simply "ungovernable." Or he blames problems on someone else, whether it is "communist public prosecutors" or the "communist judges" who have trapped him in their vice-like grip. What's a man supposed to do?
The list of criminal trials this self-proclaimed "superman" has endured is, indeed, impressive. Thanks to amnesties or statutes of limitation, he has escaped charges for perjury, false accounting and bribery (even of judges). Sometimes a lack of evidence has led to acquittal; at other times, he's been found innocent. One particularly unpleasant trial, for which he is charged with abuse of office and supporting the prostitution of minors, is currently ongoing. That trial might be focused on Berlusconi's alleged dalliances with the now world-(in)famous Ruby -- but, of course, he has already enjoyed and survived his fair share of sexual adventures.
A Man and His Women
Indeed, the story of Berlusconi and his women is a classic Italian tale.
First there is la mamma, Rosa. Until she died at the age of 97 in February 2008, Berlusconi took her everywhere, showered her with gifts, sang her songs. He was the dear son, while she was the ferociously protective mother who would go after anyone who tried to attack her darling boy. When it came to Berlusconi's opponents, such as Prodi, she said it was enough "to just look them in the eye." In her view, poor Silvio was simply "much too good" for this world.
After the mother comes the wife -- or, in his case, wives. Cheating on them was fine, but he won't lower himself to badmouthing them, as doing so would only diminish his own honor. Thus, the normally chatty Berlusconi says little about his two exes. Otherwise, he is either bragging about or keeping silent about "the beautiful girls" who belong to his third subset of women. They don't have to be particularly smart or well-spoken. It's looks that count.
The particularly lucky girls will sometimes even get an invitation to one of the notorious "Bunga Bunga" evenings at one of his homes. The rewards for taking part in these sex games -- whose existence he vehemently denies -- aren't only bundles of cash and jewelry; some ladies have even found themselves with a job at one of his television stations. Even his former dental hygienist ended up in a regional parliament.
Of course, Berlusconi doesn't see anything dishonorable about all this. "If it sometimes happens that I look at the face of a pretty girl, it's better to get excited about beautiful girls than to be gay," he once told reporters. Such comments obviously anger many, but there is also widespread tacit approval for his sentiments.
Over the last two decades, Berlusconi has "turned the Italian's value system inside out more fundamentally than Mussolini's fascism," says Gerhard Mumelter, the veteran Italy correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard. Berlusconi's TV stations, he adds, have "brainwashed (viewers) for years, raised them to be a people of voyeurs and drowned them in a sea of shallow banalities."
Fearing the Comeback
These also number among the reasons why many Italians hope that the era of relative freedom from Berlusconi will last a bit longer. Despite his reduced omnipresence, however, he is still a man of some importance as the head of one of the three largest parties that Prime Minister Monti relies upon for his majority of support.
For the time being, pollsters see Berlusconi's prospects for success as modest. If an election were held on Sunday, they estimate that he would secure only 15 percent of the vote. But since the election won't be held until next spring, there is still plenty of time for Berlusconi's propaganda machine to shift into high gear.
Pundits already prophesized the end of Berlusconi's political career in 1995 and 2006. They said he didn't have a chance. They said he was through. But he came back both times. Diamanti, the political scientist, says that Berlusconi's greatest allies are "the Italians' short memories and forbearance." They quickly forgive or forget his broken promises.
Given these circumstances, even now, a shiver of fear runs up the backs of Berlusconi's opponents whenever they see this both admired and hated macho clown address his remaining supporters. "Give me 51 percent!" he bellows to an enthusiastic, cheering crowd. "Then I can do it again!"
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