da THE GUARDIAN - 16 Dic 2000
Silvio = Houdini
di RORY CARROL in Rome

Italy's Houdini poised to pull off his greatest trick .
Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has shrugged off criminal charges and looks set to stride to electoral victory
Sunk deep in a sofa in his Roman palazzo, Silvio Berlusconi grins and explains why Europe has nothing to fear from his coming revolution. Italy is to be physically and culturally transformed but European Union partners can rest assured that his comeback, though spectacular, will be perfectly safe.
They call him the Cavalier but it might as well be Houdini. Not so long ago he was dead in the water, apparently a disgraced loser and convicted crook bound for jail.
The showman who was said to have sprung from the womb buying low and selling high was accused of massive corruption and acquired another nickname, the Watersnake.
But now, the 64-year-old media tycoon and leader of Italy's centre-right opposition feels so close to victory he can almost touch it. "I've been a property developer, it's what I'm best at. Soon I'll be able to develop the whole country."
Humiliation. A cross between Rupert Murdoch and Ross Perot, Mr Berlusconi exploded into politics to save the right. However, not all the billions in his bank accounts, nor the legions of journalists who did his bidding, nor the slickest marketing in Italy's history could save him.
His government collapsed in 1994 after seven months, a humiliation sealed two years later when the centre-left won power and prosecutors piled on new charges.
Six years later he seems invincible. Opinion polls suggest he will trounce the ailing centre-left government in elections due in spring. For Mr Berlusconi the day cannot come too soon.
Still Italy's richest man, worth around 13bn, he has successfully shaken off the convictions for various crimes of corruption through a series of appeals, emerged as the martyr of biased prosecutors, rebuilt his coalition and exploited the government's infighting. All that's left is to win respect abroad.
Hence the courting of foreign journalists. "I've been up all night writing out the answers," he says, showing scribbled replies to questions faxed by the Guardian.
Told he missed some good programmes on his three television channels, the man who made a fortune bringing showgirls and quiz shows to Italian screens shakes his head sadly. "I never have time to watch, I'm always working."
Critics worry that he is an unpredictable maverick who may be beholden to extremist allies.
Dressed casually, the famed tan, charm and smile are in place. The latter fades when asked about a potential conflict of interest between his public and private roles. It's not just the enormity of his business empire, it is that it decides much of what Italians read and watch.
Fininvest, an unlisted company, indirectly controls several newspapers and magazines, three TV channels and Italy's biggest publishing house, Mondadori.
Partisanship is rampant. A news anchor, Emilio Fede, interrupts reports to denounce the left. Participants in Italy's version of Big Brother ridicule politicians except the one who happens to own the network that produces the show.
Mr Berlusconi responds that he has no involvement in day-to-day management and that the state TV network, Rai, is biased towards the government. True, but soon he is likely to be the government.
He flatly rules out selling off Fininvest and instead promises to pass a law regulating such conflicts of interest and putting his companies into a blind trust. Useless, say critics, as long as his brother, son and daughter remain in charge.
Jewish groups are queasy at the alliance with the post-fascist National Alliance but more controversial is his alliance with Umberto Bossi's immigrant-bashing Northern League.
Suspected of plotting separatism behind an agreed devolution programme, it was Mr Bossi's defection that brought down Mr Berlusconi's first government. Can he be trusted this time? "Yes, because Bossi knows well that he can reach his eternal goal, federalism, only by allying with us," says Mr Belusconi.
The northern regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto are straining for more autonomy. Mr Berlusconi has struggled to cap such impulses within his own Forza Italia party but reckons national unity is so strong there will be no separatist genie when he opens the bottle.
Pro-European, Mr Berlusconi is at pains to appear a mainstream conservative of the same school as Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister.
He links crime with illegal immigrants and accuses the government of foisting a multi-ethnic Italy on an unwilling public. Only those who can show proof of work, accommodation and health care should be allowed in.
Arguing that lefties have brought the country to its knees and only he can repair the damage, his programme's ambition is stupendous. "We are preparing a Copernican revolution to refound the state."
The number of parliamentary deputies is to be halved, bureaucracy swept away, taxes slashed, laws reformed, utilities privatised, bridges and roads built. "A huge task, maybe too large for a small man." The twinkle suggests he doesn't believe that for a second.
The government took Italy into the euro, stabilised the economy and cut taxes but ducked major reforms for fear of upsetting interest groups.
Hinting that the unions are vulnerable, the owner of AC Milan football club insists he will pay the price of short-term unpopularity to get things done.
Pressed on a sensitive point - that he is allegedly a closet Tony Blair fan - he runs for cover. "No, my programme is totally embedded in the Italian situation."
Bonhomie becomes toxic when conversation turns to the left. Mr Berlusconi, his voice rising, says communists control the centre-left behind the mask of telegenic moderates. "I really consider the communists a risk to my country, liberty and well-being."
Mr Berlusconi has a tendency to compare himself to the Messiah. No one is quite sure whether he is joking.


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