Europe

Can Berlusconi stage a political comeback?

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, pictured in 2008 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A conviction for under-age sex has been thrown out

Those who like their politics spiced up with a smattering of scandal and farce must have heaved a collective sigh of relief this week.

The news that Italy's highest court had thrown out the case against Silvio Berlusconi for having sex with an under-age prostitute means that the man who puts a smile on the face of world news could soon be back.

As Mr Berlusconi's own party's anthem puts it, "Menomale che Silvio c'e" - roughly translated as "thank goodness for Silvio".

He still faces unfinished business in the courts - and a political landscape that is in some ways unrecognisable from that he left.

But his possible re-emergence from court-imposed purdah does offer a chance to look at the reality of his grip on the Italian psyche - and whether that hold is finally weakening.

My in-laws gave me the first insight into Silvio Berlusconi.

They had left the grinding poverty of 1960s Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot, to build a better life in London.

Aldo had been a cobbler. He was a kid during the hard days of Fascism and the war.

Never politically active, he had always voted Socialist.

Attractive option

But even Aldo - soft-hearted, honest, hard-working man that he was - could see the attraction of Mr Berlusconi.

You see, he had done what every Italian man of that generation dreamt of. He had become rich, he had power; he was flash and funny - and he had women, lots of them.

More than that, he had got away with it. He was, as the Italians put it, "furbo" - cunning. You didn't have to approve of him - but you couldn't help admiring his chutzpah.


Silvio Berlusconi:

  • 1936: Born in Milan. Began career selling vacuum cleaners and built a reputation as a crooner in nightclubs and on cruise ships.
  • 1971: Launches a local cable television outfit, Telemilano, that would grow into Italy's biggest media empire, Mediaset.
  • 1993: Founds political party, Forza Italia - named after a chant used by Italian football fans.
  • 1994: Becomes prime minister, forming a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.
  • 2001: Becomes prime minister for a second time, in coalition with his former partners.
  • 2008: Starts third term as prime minister, leading a revamped party, the PDL.
  • 2011: Resigns after losing parliamentary majority.
  • 2012: Imprisoned for tax fraud and barred from office.
  • 2013: Given seven-year jail term for paying for sex with an under-age prostitute and abusing his office to cover it up. Verdict overturned in 2014.

Silvio Berlusconi was a constant during our ten years living just outside his hometown, Milan.

His political longevity speaks both to the poverty of Italian politics in those years and to his own zest for life and hunger for power.

Throughout that decade, the foreign media consistently focused on his tabloid antics, as he skipped cheekily round statues playing hide-and-seek with a less-than-amused Angela Merkel, or complimented Barack Obama on his suntan.

We chuckled guiltily; we frowned judgmentally in our patronising northern European way; once in a while, we felt genuinely horrified that such a man was the public face of his country.

Distorted image

But the truth is that if the world sees Mr Berlusconi refracted through the distorting lens of infotainment, he is happy to oblige.

He really does not care much what the outside world thinks - any more than his old friend, Vladimir Putin.

It also helps that, Italy being Italy rather than Russia, no-one outside really cares too much either.

"You want to sneer at us, to think of the world's eighth-biggest economy as a joke?" Mr Berlusconi seems to ask. "Go ahead.

"And if, instead, you want to continue seeing us through rose-tinted specs as a kind of kaleidoscopic theme park - one part Tuscany and Venice; the other the Mafia, Lotharios and pizza - then so be it.

"It all deflects attention from the sad reality; it all gives me more freedom to do what I want."

Media master

What gives this greater potency is the man's acknowledged mastery of the mass media.

It was Mr Berlusconi who brought game shows to Italian TV; who reinvented the television news; and who turned his favourite football team (AC Milan) into a potent political symbol.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Berlusconi has been Italian prime minister three times

In short, he knows how to press the buttons that get him attention and strike a chord with his compatriots.

But the future is more intriguing than the past; Italy, a work in progress. Immigration is changing the place.

Mr Berlusconi's mastery of the traditional mass media has been challenged by the rise of social media.

Already he has been given a lesson in its power by the Twitter-savvy activists of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement.

And now, as Mr Berlusconi emerges, blinking, into a changed political landscape, he confronts a reality in which - finally - the old generational order is crumbling.

The geriarchs who dominated Italy since the Second World War have given way to the two Matteos: the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, 40, long suspected of being, however grudgingly, Mr Berlusconi's pick for the future; and the 42-year-old leader of the anti-immigration, anti-euro Northern League, Matteo Salvini.

Lucky man

Aldo, alas, is no longer with us.

His widow, Ines, still is - the toughest, most intelligent woman I've yet met.

When she was a young girl in her hometown, Castrovillari, a rat made the mistake of entering the kitchen.

Everyone else fled; not Ines.

Instead she shut the doors and chased it down with a broom.

Every now and then, I get a sense of how that rat must have felt.

But at 50 years and more than 2,000km distance from that blood-splattered kitchen, you will find it hard to get a sounder analysis of Mr Berlusconi's chances.

"Berlusconi," says Ines, "he's lucky. People liked him because he was rich - they thought he could do the same for them. Now they're not so sure.

"Renzi, he's young, he's clever and he's done well," she says.

"The economy is beginning to grow again.

"If he's lucky Berlusconi might come back. But he'll need to be lucky."

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