Wednesday 21 August 2019

Berlusconi the survivor takes centre stage again, aged 82

Court cases, sex scandals, mafia claims... nothing fazes the Italian showman

A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE: Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Reuters
A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE: Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Reuters

Paddy Agnew

And there he was himself, 82 years old and still out on the electoral trail. Just about every time you turned on an Italian news and current affairs TV programme this week, there was Silvio Berlusconi, the great showman, the great salesman, still peddling his centre-right, NeoCon line as he pitches for votes in the European elections.

When Mr Berlusconi first rocketed on to the international stage, as host to the 1994 G7 meeting in Naples, he found himself sitting around the table with US president Bill Clinton, UK prime minister John Major, German chancellor Helmut Kohl, French president Francois Mitterrand, Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama and EU Commission president Jacques Delors.

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Since then, there have been three different US presidents, namely George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Since Naples, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have all come and gone at Downing Street.

These days Messrs Murayama (95), Delors (93) and Chretien (85) are enjoying well-earned retirements while former president Mitterand died in 1996 and chancellor Kohl also died, just two years ago.

The point is, the Silvio guy has been around a long time.

Like him or loathe him, it cannot be denied that the media tycoon-cum-party leader is a survivor. He is also still a wealthy man. Last year, Forbes ranked him as the 190th richest man in the world, with a net worth of about $8bn (€7.2bn).

Not surprisingly, in the last five years he has reportedly spent €100m of that wealth on Forza Italia, the party he founded in January 1994 and with which he sprang to a sensational overnight success in the general election two months later.

The astonishing thing, too, is that early this month, Mr Berlusconi was rushed to hospital to undergo an emergency operation for an "intestinal obstruction". That would have called a halt to most people's gallop, but not him.

Even though, as he himself stated this week, he thought that his "time had come", there he was back on the airwaves all week long, campaigning hard for Forza Italia, sounding feisty and looking remarkably fit.

Throughout his 25-year-long career in public life, electoral campaigning is the thing that Mr Berlusconi has done best.

As he rattled off stats about tax rates in Russia, Hong Kong, Albania and Hungary, as he dismissed the ruling Five Star Movement (M5S) as a bunch of kids that "have run away from home, who have never had a job and whom you couldn't trust with a newspaper kiosk", one almost forgot that his Forza Italia party sank from a one time high of 29pc (in 2001) to just over 14pc at the last general election in March of last year.

For today, opinion polls predict an even lower vote of 8-9pc in a poll in which League leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini could be the big winner.

The right wing League party, coalition partner of the M5S, is expected to top the poll with 30pc (up from 17pc at the general election) thus returning 10pc more than the M5S who may return 19-22pc, significantly down on their 32pc at the general election.

A swing in the balance of power from M5S to League today could obviously set in train a serious government crisis.

Undeterred by these opinion polls, Mr Berlusconi has been out there all week, "on the pitch" as he likes to put it. Furthermore, lest anyone think that he has become a benign old granddad, he spent the week berating interviewers for interrupting him, treating them to a distinctly uncomfortable Alex Ferguson-style glare that left no doubt as to who was in charge.

Remarkably, the sea of troubles that has washed around his political career has not impinged on his cast-iron sense of self belief. Asked what he would do if elected to the European Parliament, he answered: "People will listen to me carefully and with respect in the European Parliament where I will probably be the most authoritative person, given my past. I am the only person to have presided over G7, G8 summits on three different occasions..."

Some might beg to differ but... At first glance, Mr Berlusconi's continuing presence on the Italian and European political stage seems to defy all the most fundamental tenets of parliamentary democracy.

Thirty-five court cases, on charges that ranged from money laundering to tax fraud to mafia collusion, would have ended most political careers long ago. Not to mention, a 2013 tax fraud conviction that saw him banned from public office for four years, up until May of last year.

In nine years in government, Mr Berlusconi introduced at least 20 ad personam laws (legislation designed to suit his own, often judicial needs) with many of them being subsequently adjudged unconstitutional.

Those laws ranged from the decriminalisation of accountancy fraud, to shortening the statute of limitations, to curbing the use of international search warrants.

Nor can it be forgotten how on April 5, 2011, the Italian parliament, controlled by a solid Berlusconi majority, solemnly voted that Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug, otherwise known as Ruby the Heart Stealer, was in fact the granddaughter of Egyptian president Hosnei Mubarak and, as such, entitled to diplomatic protection.

Ms El Mahroug, of course, was arguably the best known young lady at the centre of the infamous bunga bunga sex scandals that have pursued (and still pursue) Mr Berlusconi for the last nine years.

Despite the bitter controversy engendered by his three governments (1994, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011), Mr Berlusconi told another presenter this week that he would like to be remembered "for the fact that my governments were better than any other government in the history of the Republic".

In 2014, the Supreme Court sentenced Mr Berlusconi's close ally and adviser, former Euro MP Marcello Dell'Utri to a seven-year prison sentence for mafia collusion.

That verdict also concluded that, up until 1992, Mr Berlusconi had regularly paid Cosa Nostra in Sicily.

Furthermore, for years now, a small number of mafia "pentiti" (turncoats) have claimed to have met Mr Berlusconi, implying a close relationship between Forza Italia and Cosa Nostra.

That speculation is partly fuelled by the fact that former Euro MP Dell'Utri was not only a close aide but he was also the chief architect of Forza Italia, as well as being a native of Palermo.

Not for nothing, Italy's parliamentary anti-mafia commission this week declared Mr Berlusconi to be an "impresentabile" (unpresentable) at today's elections because of various outstanding judicial inquiries.

Throughout all his legal troubles, however, Mr Berlusconi has steadfastly and doggedly declared his innocence, often claiming to be the victim of a political witch-hunt orchestrated by investigating magistrates with left-wing sympathies.

When his last government collapsed in November 2011, many of Italy's senior European partners breathed a sigh of relief.

Many had argued that Mr Berlusconi's apparent mishandling of the European Union's fourth largest economy had not only left Italy teetering on the edge of default but, in the process, had threatened to overturn the entire EU applecart.

Looking back on that moment this week, though, Mr Berlusconi repeated his oft-cited belief that he had been the victim of "a quiet coup d'etat" in which European bankers and politicians, with the aid of then Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, contrived to bring him down, replacing him with former European Commissioner Mario Monti.

So why, at the age of 82, is Mr Berlusconi back on the hustings?

He says that it is his "duty" given the dangerous threat that is posed by the new communists.

With Mr Berlusconi, the reds are still under the bed, except that they have changed identity. Once the reds were the Italian Communist Party in Italy and the Soviet Union in the big bad world.

Today, the danger is represented by the Five Star Movement in Italy and the People's Republic of China.

In language not dissimilar to that used by the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, Mr Berlusconi put it this way last week: "When I go to the European parliament, we've got to change EU politics and unite the West because only a united West will be able to resist the expansionist, hegemonic challenge of Chinese communism... that is the challenge for our future generations."

It could be, though, that Mr Berlusconi is still on the hustings for the same reason that he started out in politics - to protect himself and defend his business empire.

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