The Silvio Berlusconi Show

As the scandals mount, is Italy's gaffe-prone PM at risk of cancellation?

The Silvio Berlusconi showUPDATE: Yesterday, a jovial Silvio Berlusconi appeared defiantly oblivious of the scandal surrounding him while touring the earthquake-ravaged town of L’Aquila. Noticing that there weren’t any “girls” present, he promised to reward them by shipping some in: “Well boys, if all goes well, I’ll really bring the showgirls,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll all come across as gays.”

(June 25, 2009) While North Americans have to settle for the tawdry staged dramatics of Jon & Kate Plus 8, Italians have the real thing in the ongoing reality show starring Silvio Berlusconi. Few weeks go by that the gaffe-prone Italian prime minister isn’t at the centre of a controversy of his own making.

In the current episode, the 72-year-old business tycoon is battling allegations that prostitutes attended parties he hosted at his official residences. In an interview with Chi magazine, which he owns, Berlusconi denied he ever paid for sex, which technically wasn’t the charge (his friend, businessman Gianpaolo Tarantini, who’s being investigated for allegedly abetting prostitution, admitted to paying for women to attend, if not to entertain; one of these women claims to have video). ”I’ve never paid a woman,” Berlusconi, the country’s richest man worth some $12 billion, told the magazine indignantly. But Berlusconi couldn’t leave it at that: “I’ve never understood what satisfaction there is other than that of conquering [a woman].”

Voicing such archaic sentiments has landed the politician in l’acqua calda before. Last January, he said that an interior ministry proposal to deploy troops on city streets following a series of savage sexual assaults on women would be impractical: “We would have to send as many soldiers as there are beautiful girls. And I don’t think we would manage.” When he was criticized for appearing insensitive to sexual violence, Berlusconi insisted that his remarks were a “compliment” and noted that “women have to be defended.”

The thing about Berlusconi is that you know he means it: Il Cavaliere, or the knight, as he’s nicknamed, belongs to the school that thinks praising a woman about her appearance and giving her a squeeze on the behind, even in a professional setting, is the highest compliment. Boundaries between the public and private—and the political and personal—don’t exist for him, which makes him so morbidly fascinating to watch; his wealth and power have paved the way for him to get away with egregious, insensitive and cringe-inducing behaviour. In April, after earthquakes ravaged parts of Italy, he joked residents should view life as a “camping weekend.” And while touring the region, he hit on a female doctor: “I wouldn’t mind being resuscitated by you,” he told her.

His personal life is a mess. His 19-year marriage to his long-suffering wife, the former actress Veronica Lario, has been a national soap opera about to be cancelled: in May, Lario announced she was seeking divorce after discovering her husband attended the 18th-birthday party of an aspiring model; Lario accused him publicly of “frequenting minors.”

As an international ambassador, he’s a buffoon. At the G20 summit in London in April, the usually unflappable Queen Elizabeth appeared irritated at Berlusconi’s boisterous shout-outs to President Obama. He insists upon being centre stage: at a photo op at one of his first international meetings following his first election in 1994, he made the “sign of the horns,” or of the cuckold, over the Spanish dignitary’s head.

Despite, or because of all of this, Italians have elected him three times; his approval rating remains above 60 per cent. Rumours that he rose to political power via shady business deals and political payoffs doesn’t seem to be a problem. Nor does the long list of allegations made against him that include mafia collusion, tax fraud, corruption and bribery of police officers and judges.

Ironically what has cemented Berlusconi’s popularity, leaving aside the fact he controls much of the country’s media, is the perception he’s authentic, the anti-politician, which permits him to get away with behaviour other politicians never could. He’s a distraction far cheesier and more amusing than any programming on his TV stations. His affinity for finding the lowest common denominator, which served him as a television tycoon, has clearly translated brilliantly into political life.

Analyzing Berlusconi’s appeal has become a lens on the Italian nation. Lina Sotis, a columnist for the largest circulation Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, blames the disappearance of the Italian grande borghesia—its upper middle classes—who would never have allowed a Berlusconi to rise to power. Middle and lower classes in Italy, on the other hand, she writes, admire him, finding him simpatico and often comparing him to popular actor Alberto Sordi “who personified the vices of the Italians–their vulgar admiration for money, wealth, excess, easy women.” Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome: Money Media Celebrity=Power=Silvio Berlusconi views Italians’ acceptance of Berlusconi a symptom of a country in profound crisis—its economy stagnant, people disillusioned by the left-leaning academic and journalistic elites and with a weak opposition that has failed to offer a credible political alternative to Berlusconi’s right-leaning People of Freedom party.

The Silvio Berlusconi Show is scheduled to air until 2013, when his term ends. If he has his way, it’ll run indefinitely. He recently expressed the desire to increase the president’s role beyond dissolving parliament and calling elections, to proposing laws and forging foreign policy, a move interpreted to mean he wants the job for himself which would make him the most powerful Italian politician since Mussolini.

There are signs he’s facing cancellation: this week, an influential Catholic magazine attacked Berlusconi’s behaviour as indefensible, noting he had “passed the limits of decency” and accused him of causing a “moral emergency.” There are concerns his latest scandal will shadow next month’s G8 conference in L’Aquila, Italy. And yesterday, the owners of the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper announced they were planning to sue him after he urged entrepreneurs not to advertise in the paper. Typically, the prime minister shot back, calling them “shameless.” He also said the nation needed refurbishment of its image abroad: “a campaign (against him) fuelled by hate and envy and that certainly does no good for the country”–as if the endlessly entertaining Silvio Berlusconi Show is.

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