Berlusconi is hoping to secure a third term as Italy's prime minister [AFP]

Silvio Berlusconi, 71, has led the right of Italian politics since he emerged on the political stage 15 years ago.

"On the centre-right, unfortunately, there is still no one else but me who can hold together all the moderates, liberals, Catholics, secularists and reformists that make up the People of Freedom," he told the Il Mattino newspaper.

"I am, in a word, irreplaceable".

Born on September 29, 1936, to a middle-class familiy in Milan, Berlusconi was a cruise-ship singer at one point of his life. He went on to build a vast personal fortune with a series of property developments in Milan.

Indeed much of his popularity when he tackled politics by founding his Forza Italia party in 1993 came from his image as a self-made man who argued that his business experience is exactly what was required to build a great Italy.

Media mogul

Berlusconi's current business dealings, which include three of Italy's mainstream televsion channels, have also brought a number of legal charges against him, tax fraud, embezzlement, false accounting and bribing a judge.

Most of the charges have failed to go to trial.

"He speaks
a different language,
much more comprehensible, accessible" 

In 1994, Berlusconi became prime minister for the first time.

Critics say that he used this first term in power to pass laws protecting him from prosecution and advance his business interests.

Berlusconi's first government collapsed after just seven months when it lost the support of a political partner. He then lost the 1996 general election to Romano Prodi.

He triumphed in 2001 to become the first Italian politician in 50 years to complete a full five-year mandate, before losing again to Prodi in 2006.

During that election he compared himself to Jesus Christ, just one of the frequent outrageous statements and jokes that have been criticised by commentators.

When he saluted "the menopause section" of a rally - seats mostly occupied by older female supporters - and urged women to cook for his party's candidates to keep their strength up, it won him applause rather than lost him support.

He also once raised eyebrows by asserting that "in Mao's China, they don't eat children but they boil them for fertiliser in the fields".

'Anti-politician'

John L Harper, of the John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, says that people like the reputation he has of being an entertainer and having a sense of humour.

"He speaks a different language, much more comprehensible, accessible," he said.

"I think people see him as an anti-politician."

Berlusconi is also famous for his interest in his looks, wearing a permanent tan as well as having had hair implants and a facelift.

Despite, or perhaps because of his wealth, Berlusconi seems to connect with ordinary Italians like no other contemporary politician.

His wealth is flaunted and his private life is public. The media regularly shows him entertaining in lavish villas on Sardinia's coast or flying off for a holiday in his mansion in Bermuda.

Berlusconi's riches - he has fallen to third in Forbes's list of the wealthiest Italians but is still worth $9.4bn - seem to be aspirational for voters rather than a cause for envy.

Football fan

Importantly for many Italians, Berlusconi is also a football fan in a football-mad country, buying AC Milan and turning it into one of the world's most successful clubs.

"Mr Berlusconi is really good at selling dreams ... he can tell people 'I will make your life so much better, I was successful so can you be too,'" Beppe Severgnini, columnist with Corriere Della Sera, told Al Jazeera.

"To be honest when he was in government between 2001 and 2006, he was not really successful, he had a big majority and so if you think about it his record was not that good."

But many tough choices will have to be made by whoever becomes prime minister after the election and Berlusconi recognises that he may not be able to stay popular.

"If we win, we will need to do a lot of things, including unpopular things, and we should be very concerned," he said in a recent campaign speech.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies