- - Friday, October 28, 2011

ROME — Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi avoided the collapse of his government with a mix-and-match reform package to keep the European creditors at bay.

It was a political compromise that left his ruling coalition intact and included more than a touch of the survival instinct that has marked his 17-year political career.

In what has become a well-worn script in Italy, the tycoon-turned-prime minister managed to survive against all odds.
In this latest instance, the European Union demanded reforms aimed at helping Italy balance its books and avoid a default on its debt that would send dangerous ripples across the eurozone.

Key figures in Mr. Berlusconi’s ruling coalition were divided over essential parts of the reform, such as raising the retirement age and cutting government services. Italian newspapers reported that Mr. Berlusconi threatened to quit if they could not come to an agreement, and in the early hours of Wednesday, a deal was made.

It was the second time this month that Mr. Berlusconi, 75, faced down defeat. On Oct. 14, his government won a parliamentary confidence vote by an eight-vote margin, amid charges of closed-door deal making to secure votes.

After dozens of narrow escapes in a political career dating to 1994, the details of how each one worked may be less important than the question of how he does it.

“When you control the country’s television broadcasters, have almost unlimited wealth to draw from, and the patronage of the state to work with, it makes it a lot easier to stay in power,” said political commentator James Walston, a political-science expert with the American University of Rome.

He was referring to Mr. Berlusconi’s Mediaset television networks, his indirect control over state broadcaster RAI, a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and the Italian tradition of using political favors as bargaining chips.

“These assets he has give him an unprecedented power to negotiate and manipulate,” Mr. Walston said.

Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, had a simpler explanation.

Berlusconi has a kind of cunning that allows him to find the escape route from almost any situation,” she said.

Mr. Berlusconi’s recent escapes are even more impressive, given the context in which he finds himself.

Opinioni reports the prime minister has the approval of only one in five Italians, near his all-time low, as he takes the blame for the country’s anemic economic growth that has trailed that of the European Union average for nine of the past 10 years.

The past two years have seen the defection of key allies from his coalition, as Mr. Berlusconi became embroiled in a series of lawsuits alleging tax evasion, abuse of power, influence peddling, bribery and charges that he paid a 17-year-old girl for sex.

Wiretaps revealed one embarrassing conversation after another, including the introduction of the phrase “bunga bunga” - Berlusconi-talk for dinner parties that evolve into orgies - into the public consciousness.

“There are very few people in history that could survive what Berlusconi has gone through,” said Ms. Rossi.