- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

ROME (AP) — At 71, Silvio Berlusconi has a pacemaker and his perma-tanned face is pinched by plastic surgery.

He has been plagued by criminal trials, conflict-of-interest accusations and headline-making gaffes. During two previous stints as prime minister, he defied public opinion by sending troops to Iraq and passing laws that critics say kept him out of jail.

And yet, as political buddies former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush look to their place in history, the flamboyant billionaire appears poised for a political comeback in elections yesterday and today.

Italians began voting yesterday in a general election that could return Mr. Berlusconi to power.

His main opponent, former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, is almost 20 years younger and promised deep reform and an ideology-free approach to tackle the country’s problems.

“I’m voting for Berlusconi because he’s the one who can make it. If he doesn’t, we’re ruined,” said 65-year-old Roberta Marini after casting her ballot in downtown Rome. “Berlusconi is strong, aggressive and he gives all he’s got.”

How does he do it?

Beyond the fabled charisma and the showmanship, the cruise-ship crooner-turned media magnate-turned political phenomenon strikes a profound chord with many Italians because he embodies many of their aspirations, foibles, passions and flaws.

They enjoy his down-to-earth, roguish charm, and his glamorous lifestyle is their Italian Dream. His married life has played out in passionate language in the national press. And if rule-bending is something of a national art in Italy, Mr. Berlusconi is the master.

“He’s a gifted communicator, he’s a gifted demagogue, he has extraordinary personal skills, a sense of humor, he’s a real gifted entertainer,” said professor John L. Harper at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, “So I think people see him as an anti-politician.”

As such, his platform — a classic (some say incoherent) mix of lower taxes and heavy investment not unlike that of his rival, Mr. Veltroni on the center-left — has become a secondary concern.

He may no longer be Italy’s richest man; he was demoted to third among Italians on the latest Forbes magazine list. Nevertheless, he’s still the entrepreneur who created a media empire worth $9.4 billion that, along with public broadcaster RAI, dominates TV fare for the nation of 58 million.

“Berlusconi looks to many Italians like a can-do person, a man who does not come from politics, who is self-made, who created a financial empire and who therefore has the expertise, the competence, the spirit and the energy to get his country back up,” said Pietro Grilli di Cortona, a political science professor at the Roma Tre university, in Rome.

Mr. Berlusconi is proud of his wealth and is not afraid to show it off. He plays it to his advantage, arguing that if he can build a great business he can build a great Italy, too.

Yet his last term as prime minister, a record-breaking five years, ended with the economy mired in zero growth.

Mr. Berlusconi is dismissive when not outright contemptuous of career politicians, a popular pose in a country that shows little respect for its leaders.

Nevermind that he has been a politician for the past 15 years, since a huge nationwide corruption investigation called “Clean Hands” wiped away most of the ruling class and opened the way to new blood.

Since then, he has been tried repeatedly in cases linked to his Milan-based business interests, on charges ranging from bribing public officials to illegally funneling millions of dollars to political parties.

He has either been acquitted, sometimes thanks to laws passed by his own government, or seen cases against him expire under the statute of limitations. He has always maintained his innocence, claiming he is the victim of a conspiracy of left-leaning magistrates.

Not one to wax modest, he said at the time of his leap into politics he was the “chosen one,” the only person who could save Italy.

Yet, his performance during his last stint, in 2001-06, was a disappointment.

He began by promising to put his business savvy at the service of the country and deliver a “new economic miracle.” However, critics said his partial liberalization of the labor and pension systems, among Europe’s most inflexible, was too timid, especially for a self-professed champion of free markets with a comfortable parliamentary majority.

There were highly unpopular decisions, such as sending 3,000 troops to Iraq over the street protests of thousands of Italians, and moments that exposed him to ridicule, such as revelations of his plastic surgery and hair transplant. He courted controversy when he compared a German politician to a Nazi camp guard and when he said shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks that Western civilization is superior to Islam.

However, he also insisted that Italy’s international profile has been raised, not least thanks to his personal friendships with Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Moreover, five consecutive years in power — despite a brief midterm resignation and some Cabinet shuffles — delivered a sense of stability to a country that has had more than 60 governments since World War II.

Eventually, dissatisfaction with his economic performance cost Mr. Berlusconi the 2006 election. He already had begun withdrawing troops from Iraq and his successor, leftist Romano Prodi, finished the job.

But Mr. Prodi’s unpopular government lasted less than two years, and Mr. Berlusconi returned to center stage saying he had a job to finish.

In soundings taken two weeks ago, before a pre-election ban on polling took effect, Mr. Berlusconi was ahead by five and nine percentage points — enough, he says, to guarantee him victory and a hold on both houses of parliament.

He has campaigned against a government he says ruined the country, and vows to put “Italy back on its feet.”

For someone who has likened himself to Napoleon and even Jesus, he now sounds uncharacteristically low-key. The man who once promised miracles now focuses on how to clear Naples’ streets of an overspill of trash so huge that it has become a matter of concern across Europe.

Mr. Berlusconi’s faith in himself remains boundless, though. He would gladly give up politics, he said, except that “I’m still indispensable.”

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