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Berlusconi Just Loves Berlusconi

Seeking reelection, Italy's leader is flooding the airwaves on stations he owns. Despite gaffes, legal woes and egotism, he just might win again.

March 13, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — One day he likens himself to Napoleon. A few days later, it's none other than Jesus Christ.

The irrepressible Silvio Berlusconi, surgically enhanced prime minister and Italy's richest man, is running for reelection. And despite a record of embarrassing public gaffes, disastrous economic performance and unpopular foreign policies, he stands a decent chance of winning.

Berlusconi is leading a center-right coalition of parties into the April 9-10 vote against a center-left alliance headed by Romano Prodi, an ex-prime minister and a former European Commission president. Polls have fairly consistently given Prodi a four-point lead, but experts caution that the race is too close to call, especially given Berlusconi's ability to dominate the media -- a large portion of which he and his family own.

In a campaign that has largely avoided pressing issues, Berlusconi managed to win what amounted to an endorsement from President Bush and a rare opportunity to speak before the U.S. Congress early this month. Although Bush is unpopular in Italy, Berlusconi has used his friendship with the president to prove his importance on the world stage.

And many Italians buy it. They laugh at him, or roll their eyes, but they also, begrudgingly or not, admire his successes. He has managed to portray his many legal troubles, including calls Friday for yet another indictment, as a plot by communist judges and prosecutors out to get him. Even his embarrassing comments he later blames on leftist journalists out to get him.

"He's a megalomaniac," said supporter Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the Il Foglio newspaper, which is partly owned by the Berlusconi empire. "But he's also a great victimist. He knows how to act like a victim."

Berlusconi, whose hair seems to grow thicker and darker by the day, has acknowledged having face-lifts. A short man pushing 70, he often wears makeup and heels and sports a George Hamilton tan. He is known for making poor-taste jokes that often insult or embarrass world leaders and for grabbing headlines with comments such as saying he would abstain from sex until the election and promising to sail to Tahiti if he lost. A former cruise ship singer married to an ex-actress, he plans to release a new CD of his songs ahead of the election.

"I am the Jesus Christ of politics," he told supporters over a dinner late last month.

"I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone."

And a few days before that, on a TV talk show: "We have worked a lot. Only Napoleon did more than me -- but I am certainly taller than him."

More to the point, Berlusconi has weathered the kinds of legal storms that could easily terminate the average political career. The target of numerous corruption investigations, he stood trial while in office on bribery charges involving an old business deal. He is currently fending off allegations that he bribed a British lawyer -- the husband of a British Cabinet minister -- to lie on his behalf in yet another trial. On Friday, prosecutors in Milan said they were seeking an indictment in the case.

Berlusconi and his family own or control most of Italy's broadcast media and several newspapers, as well as insurance companies, the country's largest publishing house and a premier soccer team.

The media holdings, especially, represent a conflict of interest that has been widely condemned by European Union monitoring agencies. The concentration of ownership has also restricted media to the point that Reporters Without Borders ranked Italy as the worst country in Western Europe for press freedoms.

In the first two months of this year, Berlusconi appeared on TV and radio programs morning, noon and night. In one three-week period, Berlusconi appeared on television for more than five hours, compared with about 20 minutes for Prodi, according to a public relations firm that monitors broadcasts. Often the prime minister was the sole guest on a chat show on a station he owned, in which a fawning host asked puff questions.

Berlusconi has mastered the Italian goal of maintaining the bella figura -- looking good -- while converting politics into entertainment, complete with the buxom blond showgirls that he famously introduced on his television stations.

"In a post-ideological age, what Mr. Berlusconi is selling is Mr. Berlusconi, not a party or program," said Alexander Stille, a journalism professor at Columbia University who has written several books on Italy, including the forthcoming "The Sack of Rome" about Berlusconi.

"The bedrock of Mr. Berlusconi's electorate has little interest in politics, reads little or not at all and watches a lot of television," Stille said in a column printed in London's Financial Times and Rome's La Repubblica. "The more they watch, the more likely they are to vote for Berlusconi."

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