THE ECONOMIST - 22 Mar 2001
SILVIO BERLUSCONI, ITALY'S WOULD-BE NAPOLEON
SOME Italians think Silvio Berlusconi is an angel persecuted by left-wing magistrates, unfairly despised by the political establishment, cold-shouldered by a snooty liberal intelligentsia. Others label him a crook who was lucky to survive the expulsion of his old-guard political sponsors from public life, whose first fortune was shadily acquired, and whose good luck in politics stems largely from his ownership of half of Italy’s television channels and to the sparkling image that has afforded him. Neither picture offers the full story. But few Italians know who he really is.
As leader of the opposition centre-right’s coalition, now called the House of Freedoms, Mr Berlusconi, at 64, is tipped to win the general election on May 13th. Small, bronzed and balding, he oozes ambition and chutzpah, fancying himself as a kind of entrepreneurial, modern-day Napoleon, cutting a swathe across Europe. He may well be Italy’s richest man.
Mr Berlusconi’s father was a Milanese bank clerk. Young Silvio took a law degree with a thesis on advertising contracts, but more exotic fields soon beckoned. Among other jobs taken by the future tycoon was one as a cruise-ship crooner, accompanied by his pal Fedele Confalonieri at the piano. Loyalty is a Berlusconi feature: his old ivory-tinkling friend now runs his Mediaset empire, embracing all those television stations.
Mr Berlusconi’s first big business passion was il mattone—brick, or property. In the late 1960s he spotted that go-ahead Milanese were fed up with living in a crowded, smoggy city, so he borrowed the cash to build Milano 2, a leafy American-style suburb on the eastern outskirts. Its houses sold like a dream. His opponents still mutter about where he got the money from and how he persuaded the local authorities to give him permission to build. An immense fortune was his.
As he widened his scope, he continued to draw inspiration from America. Italian television was dull—and under tight political control. Mr Berlusconi reckoned that commercial television was due. He bought his first station in 1974. Within years he was challenging the state monopoly. But he needed some political muscle. He found it with Bettino Craxi, an up-and-coming Milanese who was trying to lure the Socialist Party towards the market—and subsequently became prime minister. When Mr Berlusconi started to air recorded programmes simultaneously on different television stations round the country, giving the illusion that he already had a national network, local judges tried to stop him but the government in Rome overruled them.
Mr Berlusconi got richer still. With cash from television and advertising, he bought publishing houses, film-production companies, supermarkets. The old business establishment looked on with surprise and suspicion. He was determined to get the better of it. The Fiat-owning Agnellis owned Turin’s mighty Juventus football team; well, he would buy AC Milan. They owned a national newspaper, La Stampa; so he took control of il Giornale. Carlo De Benedetti, the owner of the giant Olivetti company, was famous for putting politicians in his thrall; Mr Berlusconi was soon out-schmoozing him. Many Italians revelled in the outsider’s success, others frowned, everyone noticed. The little Cavaliere (a title the state bestows on worthy entrepreneurs) was galloping ahead.
The turning-point came in 1993. The end of the cold war, the breaking of the post-war taboo against letting communists (many now refashioned as social democrats) into government, and the collapse of the long-dominant Christian Democrats and Socialists in a welter of corruption scandals opened up a vacuum at the heart of Italian politics. Egged on by Giuliano Urbani, a political scientist who has provided some of what might be called the tycoon’s ideology, Mr Berlusconi invented a party called Forza Italia (Let’s go, Italy), the national football cheer. Within months he had forged a coalition with the post-fascist National Alliance and the federalist Northern League. In the spring of 1994 he became prime minister, having beaten the ex-communist-led left in a general election.
No matter that he lasted barely eight months in the job, lost to a new combination of the centre-left in 1996 and has since been caught up in a tangle of legal cases which he blames on left-wing magistrates out to do him down. No matter that he has thrice been convicted of tax fiddling and other kinds of fraud (though acquitted on appeal). No matter that he is still chastised, as an aspiring national leader, for failing to resolve a manifest conflict of interests.
Indeed, when last week a journalist was given half an hour on state television to fling the most shocking allegations of criminality at him, his poll ratings merely moved up. People in government, rather than demanding a judicial re-examination, merely defended the state channel’s right to air the rumours. In sum, Mr Berlusconi looks well set to beat the left led by Francesco Rutelli, a competent and affable former mayor of Rome.
Has il Cavaliere changed, since his last brief joust in office? Yes, in that Forza Italia is more like a party, less like a football team. Yes, in that it has clearer if simplistic plans: for lower taxes, tougher treatment of criminals and illegal immigrants, and lots of spending on infrastructure. Not really, if you look at il Cavaliere’s persona.
His ego is as big as ever. “I am the best leader in the world,” he recently quipped. He still hates being heckled, questioned, or interrupted except by cheers. He remains reluctant to delegate power or to change the make-up of his inner circle. In 1994, he dished out jobs to some dubious characters. His latest team is better qualified, with a respected would-be finance minister in Giulio Tremonti. But the boss still insists on including as candidates three old pals who are under criminal investigation.
The left has solid achievements to its name (notably Italy’s entry into the euro), but it is out of puff. The mood is for change. Italians, it seems, want a more dashing leader. Whether Mr Berlusconi will prove a responsible or honourable one is a big gamble. But enough of his compatriots seem willing to take it.
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