x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Italian stallion of politics

He has a well-deserved image of a macho, red-blooded man who has played it fast and loose in both his private and his business life.


If a Hollywood mogul decided to make a movie called Silvio based upon the life of a fictional billionaire Italian businessman-turned-politician who had plastic surgery and hair plugs, who six times faced corruption charges and who hangs around with women young enough to be his granddaughters, then Italian-American groups would complain bitterly about national stereotyping. It is unlikely such a film will ever have to be made, because that very scenario has been playing out publicly in Rome - and all of it is true.

Much has been written in the press about Silvio Berlusconi, but one thing is incontrovertible - surely he could not have risen to power in any European country other than Italy. Berlusconi has achieved the highest elective office not once, but three times, having already given the Italian electorate ample grounds for thinking that his business affairs and his private life are better not too closely scrutinised.

Not that there is any shame for an Italian man in the public realm to have a mistress, but there is an expectation that basic decorum should be maintained. By allowing himself to be seen and photographed with a range of women - some of them allegedly call girls and others not yet out of their teens - Berlusconi has suddenly put himself in severe political peril. His tawdry third administration is becoming an embarrassment for Italians, particularly Italian women. It also risks developing into a problem for the wider world because next month, by hideous mischance, Berlusconi plays host to global leaders at the G8 meeting in L'Aquila.

It is unlikely that at his post-summit press conference journalists will limit their questions to the prospects for renewed growth in the world economy or for a new initiative to arrest global warming. Not that Berlusconi will be abashed, for he has seldom found himself apologising for his excesses, sexual or otherwise. Born in 1936 into a prosperous Milan family, the youthful Silvio showed an entrepreneurial streak from his earliest years. While still a student he experimented in business by selling vacuum cleaners and completed university papers.

His showmanship was in evidence, too, in early jobs as a lounge singer in nightclubs and on cruise ships and he now looks rather like an ageing, slightly battered crooner who has seen better days. Yet over the years many Italians have underestimated his determination. Some contemporaries might have mocked his syrupy singing style as a young man, but he was already embarked on building a serious fortune, borrowing heavily from the bank where his father worked to get his property empire going.

His company built thousands of flats around Milan and he made his first fortune before diversifying into buying up television stations and newspapers and creating an empire that includes Italy's three main private television channels, newspapers and magazines and one of the most glamorous football clubs in Europe, AC Milan. He is estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth some US$6.5billion (Dh23.8bn).

Like many rich men he was tempted by politics, not that he was going to work at the coalface of elective democracy. In 1993 he founded his own political party, Forza Italia - Go Italy - after the popular chant of AC Milan fans. A year later he became prime minister in coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League, but the government collapsed seven months later, partly because of Berlusconi's indictment on tax charges.

Undeterred by this initial setback, he settled into opposition and set about reorganising and strengthening his party. It was not in his nature to allow his continuing legal problems to deflect him from his political ambitions. Over the years he has been charged with tax fraud, false accounting, embezzlement and, most seriously, attempting to bribe a judge. When he has been convicted of offences he has won on appeal and, on occasion, his lawyers have been astute in spinning out the legal process beyond the statute of limitations. Where necessary his government has reduced the statute of limitation to his advantage.

He bounced back in 2001, serving as prime minister for five years before losing the 2006 election to his arch-rival, Romano Prodi. Then, when Mr Prodi's administration fell apart as Italian governments tend to do, he came back again 18 months ago as head of a right-wing coalition and burnished with a new reputation as one of the undoubtedly big figures of post-war Italian politics. Friends and associates are frustrated that a man who seemed to have all the wealth and prestige he could want should behave so recklessly. Just as he sailed close to the wind in his financial affairs in his business career, so he has tested the limits of what any male politician can get away with regarding women.

The allegations are lurid and detailed and some of them are unproven. But his behaviour has been sufficiently reckless for there to be photographs in circulation of call girls cavorting naked in the garden of his villa and for allegations to be levelled that he has slept with some of them. His problems were compounded when his wife, Veronica Lario, despairing of his fondness for the company of young girls including an 18-year-old "aspiring model" on whom he lavished expensive jewellery, announced she wanted a divorce.

Many Italians have only a shaky grasp of their leader's antics because the Berlusconi-owned television channels and his newspapers have scarcely mentioned the furore. It is true there are also three main state-owned television stations, but while he is prime minister he appoints the controllers, so they too have been circumspect in their coverage. Among those Italians who do know what is going on, there is a clear class dimension to the way they react.

"The middle and lower classes in Italy have considerable admiration for Berlusconi. They find him simpatico and figo [cool]" says Lina Sotis, a columnist for Corriere della Sera. For them he personifies the Italian vices of "vulgar admiration for money, wealth, excess, easy women and so on", she says. Lucia Annunciata of La Stampa is another Italian woman who thinks it a grave error to make a joke of Berlusconi's conduct. "I don't think of Berlusconi's behaviour as a moral issue. It is simply inappropriate for a head of state."

Some of the press has been more indulgent. Il Giornale, which happens to be owned by Berlusconi, has been deployed to discredit his critics. The paper suggests that Berlusconi is the victim of an international conspiracy involving the Left, the international media, Italy's own secret service and "traitors in his entourage". Certainly, Italian men tend generally to be more forgiving than their women. Typical of this attitude is Vittorio Sgarbi, a centre-right politician and ally, who explains that men of power need a lot of sex.

"If Berlusconi does not gain sexual satisfaction he governs badly," he declares simply. While Berlusconi may for the time being be spared the wrath of voters by old-fashioned Italian values, there is no doubting that a sense of national crisis is developing. Italy's more devout Roman Catholics are depressed and a leading priest has said the Church cannot ignore "this moral emergency". Last weekend Pope Benedict XVI appeared gratuitously to compare Berlusconi's behaviour unfavourably with the impeccable personal conduct of one of Italy's greatest post-war prime ministers, Alcide De Gasperi, hailing the latter as an example of "morality in those who govern".

There are indications that Berlusconi is preparing to adjust his image as a red-blooded macho Italian man as the G8 summit looms and the row about his behaviour threatens to make the summit a national embarrassment. In an interview this week with Chi magazine (which, inevitably, he also owns) Berlusconi insisted that he had nothing to be ashamed of in his private life and had never "paid a woman" for sex. Then the hard man of right-wing politics headed off down a strange rhetorical alley, pleading with Italians for their sympathy.

His estrangement from his wife Veronica had been a "very painful wound" and he suggested it had not been entirely his fault. "I don't know if time can heal it. What is certain is that ours has been a great love story and true love stories can never be erased." Given the lurid background to this plea for understanding, it is perhaps unlikely that Italian women will be sighing in unison, "Poor Silvio!" But in his self-serving, syrupy mea culpa, Berlusconi at least proves one point, which is that once you have plied your trade as a lounge singer in a cocktail bar, you never forget your lines.

* The National