Italy's oversexed billionaire buffoon

Silvio Berlusconi was dogged by scandals. But it took an economic crisis to bring him down.

Fun while it lasted

Tony Gentile/Reuters

It wasn’t the notorious “Bunga, Bunga” hooker orgies that did him in. Nor was it any of the 19 criminal and civil charges over 17 years, including allegations of bribing judges, tax fraud and embezzlement. Nor was he felled from within, like Caesar, or rejected by the vox populi. It took a deus ex machina—global financial markets freaked out over the eurozone debt crisis—to unseat Italy’s scandal-saturated prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Concerns over Italy’s high bond rates, not some kinky bondage escapade, forced the 75-year-old billionaire to resign last week, with less than two years left in his term. As with the mobster Al Capone, who was imprisoned for tax evasion, the train Berlusconi couldn’t hear coming was the one that hit him.

Not that Italians hadn’t grown weary of the Silvio Berlusconi reality show, a grotesque burlesque that dominated—and distracted—national life for decades. His public approval rating, down to 30 per cent, had been in decline since 2009, the year the perma-tanned, pomaded, seal-like “playboy” permanently shifted from satyr to satire. His second wife, Veronica Lari, publicly announced she’d filed for divorce, fed up with her husband “consorting with minors,” and a parade of prostitutes boasted they’d shared paid intimacy with him. The final straw came last February, when Berlusconi was ordered to stand trial for paying for sex with an underage erotic dancer, Karima El Mahroug, who goes by the stage name of “Ruby Heart Stealer.” He was also charged with abusing his office by interfering in a 2010 police investigation when El Mahroug was being held for theft, accused of calling a police station and claiming she was the niece of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Discontent with the man once dubbed “Il Cavaliere”—the Knight—was evident last month as women took to the streets calling for Berlusconi’s resignation with signs proclaiming “Italy is not a brothel!” Local elections in June saw a leftist mayor voted into power in Milan, Berlusconi’s birthplace and former stronghold. Some 40,000 residents swarmed the Piazza del Duomo chanting “Berlusconi go home” and “Berlusconi, you are finished.” Frustration with Berlusconi’s reign was also on full display after his resignation in Rome last Saturday with the kind of dancing-in-the-streets jubilation seen after the fall of dictators Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. The analogy is apt: the media tycoon became the world’s first democratic despot by shrewdly exploiting the resources he controlled. Long before he was elected, he’d amassed wealth and cultural power; later, he built on it by nimbly navigating a media-saturated world. The self-styled political saviour was the “first postmodern” politician, says Alexander Stille, author of the 2007 book The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi. “He’s about selling an image, personalizing politics; he’s not about ideas or policy or winning legislative battles,” Stille told Maclean’s.

A former vacuum-cleaner salesman, Berlusconi never stopped selling. His vast fortune was built on pleasing the populace: during the 1960s his construction company built affordable, pleasant garden suburbs for Milan’s middle classes. In 1971, he bought a local cable company that would become Mediaset SpA, the country’s largest media conglomerate. As a private-television pioneer, Berlusconi offered 24-hour wall-to-wall chat, game shows, soap operas and football, football and more football. His programming introduced “velina,” scantily clad women who regularly appear—beautiful but silent—on Italian TV shows. A segment from the cheesy long-running news roundup show Striscia la notizia features women in garter belts lolling on a table surrounded by middle-aged men; in a notorious scene on Scherzi a parte (All Joking Aside), a starlet hangs from a meat hook as a butcher stamps an expiration date on her bare buttocks. As Ariel Levy observed in a June 2011 New Yorker profile of the former prime minister: “If your only information about female people came from Berlusconi’s channels, you would likely conclude that they exist specifically to be sexually humiliated in public.”

In introducing sex to Italian television, Berlusconi altered the national culture—and paved the way for his ascendency. So did his holding company, Fininvest, which owns the football club AC Milan, along with Italy’s largest publishing house, Mondadori, and the newspaper Il Giornale. His political party, Forza Italia, or “Go Italy,” launched in 1993, was named for the AC Milan fans’ chant.

Arriving in the wake of scandals that destroyed the country’s political order in the early 1990s, Berlusconi presented himself as a lively alternative to the grey elite. His deliberately vague platform parroted Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme—platitudes promising work, freedom, individualism, generosity and prosperity. The central message was his own “aspirational” life story: “Italians identify with me, I’m one of them. I was poor and am self-made, I love soccer, life and, like any self-respecting Italian, beautiful women,” he said. It was a message that resonated with women, who delivered some 49 per cent of his votes.

After Berlusconi’s election in 1994, he formed a right-wing coalition that crumbled after seven months. In 1996 he was out again, losing to centre-left politician Romano Prodi. In 2001, he returned as prime minister, untarnished by the barrage of corruption and criminal charges that have dogged him since the 1980s. “Having a prime minister living outside of the law is not looked on unfavourably by the substantial constituency that forms his base,” says Stille. Italy’s economy is dominated by small businesses, most of which are family-owned with fewer than five employees. Tax evasion is common: taxpayers not forced to pay tend to hide 38 per cent of their income on average, according to a recent government study. In 2002, the Italian parliament passed a bill allowing Berlusconi to keep his business empire, a conflict of interest in most democracies. Last year, for the centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, Stille wrote a list of 15 things Berlusconi had been accused of that would have forced the resignation of any politician in any other democracy: “The list was a very incomplete one,” he says. It included Berlusconi’s chief corporate lawyer being convicted of bribing judges on behalf of Berlusconi, with nothing happening to Berlusconi. “Could you imagine the fallout in any other country?” he asks.

Berlusconi’s inner circle always shrugged off any impropriety. Just months ago, Mediaset chairman Fedele Confalonieri brazenly shot down corruption accusations: “Either Berlusconi is a gangster, is Al Capone, and this country—which gave birth to Leonardo, to Verdi—is so stupid that they vote for Al Capone, or there is something rotten in the state of the Italian judiciary.”

Always with an optimistic, smiling countenance, Berlusconi delighted in uniting people with laughter—whether at him or with him didn’t matter. His grandiose, foolish, often lewd comments won him the benign label “gaffe-prone.” He proved himself an equal-opportunity offender—gays, Muslims and women were all targets of his questionable humour. But he always knew how to play to his constituencies: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics,” he brashly told the Italian public in 2006, while at the same time keeping the Catholic Church happy by providing aid for Catholic schools, tax breaks for Church-run businesses and a restrictive law on artificial insemination.

The fact that Berlusconi controlled some 90 per cent of the national media, between his private media holdings and the state broadcaster, allowed him to contain any fallout at home. Other criticism he shrugged off. When The Economist ran a negative “Fit to Run Italy?” cover story about him in 2001, he slammed the magazine as the “Ecommunist.”

He exerted less spin on his boorish behaviour on the international stage, which often suggested an infantile need to be the centre of attention. During a group photograph at a 2002 EU summit in Spain, for instance, he raised two fingers behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister, Josep Pique, in the Latin gesture for a cuckold. Needing to be the only protagonist on stage figured largely in Berlusconi’s political MO, says Stille, who recalls the PM being asked if he was going to Obama’s inauguration: “He said, ‘No, I’m not an extra. I’m a lead.’ ” Unlike Obama, who stopped campaigning after he got elected, Berlusconi never stopped running for office, says Stille. “We live in a world of permanent campaign—24-hour cable TV where tiny stories become magnified out of proportion and large stories are ignored.”

As the country’s official id, Berlusconi was a master of the politics of distraction. Only occasionally was he called on it. In 2006, after he caused a flap claiming that Communists under Mao Zedong “didn’t eat babies but boiled them to fertilize the fields,” a New York Times op-ed column suggested the remark was an astute move to distract media from grim OECD figures on the Italian economy.

By 2009, Berlusconi himself had become that distraction. That year his once-suave playboy image was upended by allegations by Patrizia D’Addario, a $1,500-a-night escort who claimed he had sex with her, then leaked transcripts in which he described his premature ejaculation as “hereditary.” Suddenly Berlusconi looked like a creepy Italian version of Hugh Hefner with a perambulating posse of paid girlfriends. His denuded prowess was amplified by the news that chocolate magnate Michele Ferrero surpassed him as the country’s richest man, and was later confirmed by images of his bloody face after an attacker struck him with an alabaster statue.

Berlusconi’s cavalier attitude in the face of adversity also raised flags. In April 2009 he said of survivors of an earthquake in the central Abruzzo region staying in emergency tents: “They should look at it as a weekend of camping.” More recently, his attitude to the economy appeared equally oblivious, summoning the apocryphal image of the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned. In September, at a time when German officials were pressuring Italy over implementing budget cuts, Berlusconi telegraphed his priorities when he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel an “unf–kable lard-arse” in a wiretapped conversation, the Independent newspaper reported.

“Inaction” is the best word to describe Berlusconi’s economic policy, says Grant Amyot, a political science professor at Queen’s University. “He hasn’t brought in reforms: he presents himself as a free-marketer but his policies don’t suggest that.” The eurozone’s third-largest economy, Italy has shown anemic annual economic growth of 1.5 per cent. Though its deficit and unemployment are below EU averages, the country has been at a standstill for the past 10 years, and the average Italian is worse off as GDP per head has fallen. Yet weeks ago, the prime minister was in full salesman’s mode, celebrating it as “a prosperous country”: “I don’t think that if you went to live in Italy that Italy is feeling anything that could resemble a serious crisis.”

Days later, he lost a major parliamentary vote and tendered his resignation. Amyot believes Berlusconi’s public image, as much as economic fundamentals, did him in: “His image as a clown on the world stage and the sense he wasn’t taking the austerity measures seriously put off investors and prompted the run in bond yields,” he says.

It is significant that Berlusconi was brought down by force majeur and not the court of Italian public opinion, says Stille, who views the looming El Mahroug case as more analogous with Capone being nailed for tax evasion. “Berlusconi has done many more nefarious and serious things than cavort with prostitutes—but that was the case that got public attention, and that’s the case that’s in the docket.” Tampering with justice reflects his inability to distinguish between private and public, Stille says: “That he would use his position to lie about this woman is a complete abuse of power and is of a piece with the 17 years of squalor Berlusconi brought to Italy.”

But Berlusconi is not one to ride into the sunset quietly. “He remains a huge force,” say Stille, “possibly the most powerful person in the country, given the enormous interests, media influence and political reach he has, and he’s still the head of the largest single party in the country.” Certainly he has significant interests to defend: Mediaset lost 10 per cent of its value after he stepped down.

Stille views Berlusconi as a new political model, the evolution of the Rupert Murdoch-style media magnate content to exert pressure behind the scenes: “He was the first media tycoon to take over a country, but not the last,” says Stille, who cites former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Yingluck Shinawatra and Chilean president Sebastián Piñera as recent examples. “Berlusconi is an avant garde figure and a cautionary tale.”

It’s one that’s ongoing: the week began with Berlusconi’s successor, European Commissioner Mario Monti, talking to politicians, trade unions and employers in a frantic effort to appoint a cabinet that will restore investor confidence in the country. Berlusconi is calling his replacement “Mr. Spread,” says Amyot. “Spread,” of course, is a bond market term used to describe yield differentials. It’s also, more tellingly, porn lingo, which suggests Berlusconi hasn’t given up playing to his base quite yet.

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