Profile: Silvio Berlusconi

Italy’s “self-made” man dominated the country’s politics for nearly two decades.

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi’s image of ‘self-made’ businessman proved a vote winner for nearly two decades [GALLO/GETTY]

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister until his resignation in November 2011, had been at the centre of Italian politics since he emerged on the political stage almost 21 years ago.

The 76-year-old first became prime minister in 1994 and held the job on three separate occasions. But the collapse of his ruling majority in a budget vote in November 2011 finally spelt the beginning of the end for one of the most controversial characters in European politics.

Berlusconi’s knack of not only weathering scandal, but having his public profile seemingly boosted by what was widely seen as outrageous behaviour, long left opponents baffled.

In the end, under pressure from the international community, even his closest political allies withdrew their support for the man who once told Il Mattino newspaper that his ability to hold together various factions on the centre-right made him “irreplaceable”.

With growing concern about Berlusconi’s commitment to taking the drastic action needed to bring Europe’s third-largest economy under control, Italy was put under surveillance by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union during the G20 summit in early November 2011.

In the days following the singling out of Italy during the world leaders’ summit, even those close to the former premier condemned his failure to act more swiftly on the economy and calls on him to resign intensified.

Following the Italian parliament’s passing of an austerity package on November 12, 2011, Berlusconi resigned as Italy’s prime minister.

‘Self-made man’

Born on September 29, 1936 to a middle-class family in Milan, Berlusconi was the eldest of three children. He studied law in Milan, graduating in 1961.

In his early years, he dabbled in music and worked occasionally as a cruise-ship singer. He went on to build a vast personal fortune with a series of property developments in Milan.

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

He married his first wife, Carla Elvira Dall’Oglio, in 1965. They had two children, until he divorced Dall’Oglio for his mistress, Veronica Lario, in 1985. Berlusconi and Lario married in 1990 and had three chilrden.

Lario announced in May 2009 she wanted a divorce over his relationship with Noemi Letizia, a teenage girl from Naples who received a $8,300 necklace from him for her birthday.

Media mogul

Another source of controversy is Berlusconi’s dominance of the Italian media scene, including ownership of three television channels, which many have criticised as a conflict of interest.

Italy was put under surveillance by the EU and IMF during the 2011 G20 meeting [EPA]

Berlusconi’s business dealings have also brought a number of legal cases against him, including tax fraud [for which he was convicted on October 26, 2012, and given a four-year jail term], embezzlement, false accounting and bribing a judge.

Many charges though have failed to go to trial.

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

He has fought to retain the legal immunity he achieved in a law his government passed in 2008.

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.

His third term began in 2008, after Prodi’s government collapsed.

Permanent tan

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

Berlusconi’s riches – he has fallen to third position in Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Italians but is still reputedly worth $9.4bn – were long considered to be aspirational for voters rather than a cause for envy.

Berlusconi may have sought to portray himself as a grand statesman on the global arena but for many he was more infamous for his politically incorrect jokes and gaffes.

Early in 2011, presenting young business people with achievements awards, the ex-premier decided to joke about what he may eventually become famous for – the phrase ‘bunga, bunga’. Coined in 2010, the phrase was used widely by the media to suggest frequent parties at Berlusconi’s house.

Presenting awards to two young female entrepreneurs, Berlusconi joked: “You are so good I am almost forced to invite you for some bunga, bunga. Yes you are pretty enough, you could come.”

While his personal charisma may have won him adoration among supporters, a string of sex scandals and corruption accusations caused critics to say his raucous lifestyle was distracting him from running the country.

Berlusconi’s personal life came under renewed scrutiny in October 2010 when it emerged he had called a Milan police station in May to ask for the release of a 17-year old night-club dancer held for theft. The girl, Karima El Mahroug, also known by the stage name of Ruby Rubacuori (Heart-Stealer), said she had attended parties at his villa.

Subsequent investigations led to Berlusconi facing trial on charges of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute and abuse of power over his alleged relationship with El Mahroug.

Berlusconi denies both charges and says he has never paid for sex but those disclosures were soon superseded by further alleged sex revelations.

Having survived 50 confidence votes during his turbulent political career, Berlusconi faced calls for his resignation on enough occasions in the past to have joked about the matter.

“And they keep saying ‘Berlusconi go home’,” he told supporters on one such occasion last year. “Which puts me in some embarrassment, because I wouldn’t know which one I should go to, since I own 20.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies