Europe

Profile: Silvio Berlusconi

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, wearing a worker's helmet, toasts during the inauguration of work on a new hall for high speed trains at Rome's Tiburtina train station, 10 December 2010
Image caption Silvio Berlusconi is one of Italy's most colourful figures

Silvio Berlusconi is among Italy's richest men - he and his family are estimated to be worth $9bn (£5.7bn) by US business magazine Forbes.

If controversy and flamboyance could be measured in the same way, he would probably come near the top of those tables too.

He won a third term as prime minister in 2008, two years after his centre-right coalition was voted out of power.

Mr Berlusconi, 74, owns a business empire that spans media, advertising, insurance, food and construction.

He also owns Italy's most successful football club, AC Milan, admits he has had cosmetic surgery, has fought off repeated corruption allegations, and has been dogged by sex scandals.

Indeed, it is his involvement in every part of Italian life that has angered his critics and exasperated his rivals.

For some Italians, Mr Berlusconi's success as a business tycoon is evidence of his abilities - a reason for him to run the country.

For others, Mr Berlusconi and his businesses have done better out of the relationship than Italy has.

Critics say he has benefited heavily from favourable media coverage.

Mr Berlusconi's investment company controls Italy's three biggest private television stations. And, when he is in office, his appointees also run three public ones.

Opponents complain that an Italian voter cannot escape blanket coverage favourable to Mr Berlusconi.

They also say his control of the media extends beyond the news agenda, and that comedians who lampooned him when he was last prime minister never appeared on TV again.

Even more controversial, however, are legal inquiries into Mr Berlusconi's business dealings.

Mr Berlusconi has been accused of embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting, and attempting to bribe a judge.

A number of cases have come to trial. In some cases he has been acquitted. In others, he has been convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. In others still, the statute of limitations has expired before the case could reach its conclusion.

Mr Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing and has never been definitively convicted.

Mr Berlusconi's government passed reforms shortening the statute of limitations for fraud, but legislation introduced by his government to give top public post-holders immunity from prosecution while in office has been thrown out twice by the constitutional court.

Entrepreneur

Born on 29 September 1936 into a Milan family, Silvio Berlusconi started honing his business skills at a young age.

Image caption Berlusconi went into politics in 1993 and was prime minister by 1994

He used his charm to sell everything from vacuum cleaners to university essays during his youth, activities complemented by stints as a crooner in nightclubs and on cruise ships.

This was just the warm-up.

In 1961, he graduated in law and started his business career in earnest, borrowing from the bank where his father worked to set up his first company, Edilnord.

With Edilnord, a construction company, Mr Berlusconi established himself as a residential housing developer around his native Milan.

A decade later he launched a local cable-television outfit - Telemilano - a project which would grow into Italy's biggest media empire, Mediaset.

He then founded a family holding company, Fininvest, for a communications group which is now one of the world's largest and includes Mediaset, the publishing company Mondadori and football club AC Milan.

In 1993 Mr Berlusconi founded his own political party, Forza Italia - Go Italy - named after a chant used by AC Milan fans.

In 1994 he became prime minister, forming a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.

But rivalries between the three leaders, coupled with Mr Berlusconi's indictment for alleged tax fraud by a Milan court, led to the collapse of the government just seven months later.

He lost the 1996 election to the left-wing Romano Prodi but by 2001, he was back as prime minister, in coalition once more with his former partners.

When he was defeated in the 2006 general election, he left office having headed the longest-serving Italian government since World War II.

No slowing down

Image caption Berlusconi said in 2006 he might need to slow down but he says his party considered him "irreplaceable"

The Italian leader appears younger than his years, partly because of a hair transplant and plastic surgery around his eyes.

But in November 2006 Mr Berlusconi collapsed at a party rally. He was later fitted with a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat and he said he might need to slow down.

However, a year later, he announced the creation of his long-planned new centre-right People of Freedom party (PDL), to incorporate his own Forza Italia and the right-wing National Alliance of Gianfranco Fini.

He told supporters he had been persuaded to run again by his party, which considered him "irreplaceable".

In public he usually appears full of energy. His swift reaction to a deadly earthquake that struck the central region of Abruzzo in April 2009 is thought to have boosted his popularity.

Personal life

The perma-tanned, wrinkle-free politician appeared politically stronger than ever in the early part of his third term but he has since been embroiled in a series of allegations about his personal life.

In May 2009, Mr Berlusconi's second wife said she wanted to divorce him. She told one newspaper she could not be with a man who "consorted with minors" - after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model.

The prime minister has since been forced to deny allegations that he had paid prostitutes to attend parties at his official residences.

Image caption Italians' love affair with Silvio Berlusconi appears to be waning

In October 2010 reports surfaced that he had called a police station in Milan to ask for the release of a 17-year old Moroccan nightclub dancer who was being held for theft, who is reported to have attended Mr Berlusconi's parties.

Mr Berlusconi consistently says he has nothing to apologise for and denies ever having paid for sex.

End of Berlusconismo?

But it is on the political front that the Italian leader has been losing the most critical support.

Divisions with his coalition partner Gianfranco Fini appeared in dramatic fashion in April when the two men had a bitter argument at a live televised party congress.

The prime minister survived several confidence votes in parliament over the summer, with Mr Fini and his breakaway group refraining from voting against Mr Berlusconi.

But Mr Fini has since urged the prime minister to resign and four members of the government have quite, one of them citing worries about the government's "moral message".

Mr Berlusconi's approval ratings have been plummeting and the once Teflon-coated politician appears more vulnerable than ever.

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