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Berlusconi the fighter

Gavin Hewitt | 09:43 UK time, Friday, 9 October 2009

When the Italian prime minister appeared before the cameras, after the court had lifted his immunity, he ended with the words "Long Live Italy! Long Live Berlusconi!" Silvio Berlusconi

There is often a moment when a leader has been in power for a time when they begin to see the fortunes of their country and themselves as one and the same. It is usually a sign of weakness. With Berlusconi you can't be too sure.

He said he was "invigorated" at the prospect of the fight ahead. Indeed his public face was to relish the battle. He allows no reflection, no regret, no carefully-constructed argument. The trials against him are "false, laughable, absurd". He said he would defend himself in the courtroom and "make my accusers look ridiculous and show everyone what stuff they are made of and what stuff I am made of".

This is braggadocio. The very word seems to come with a swagger. I am not certain it is a real Italian word, but it means "empty boasting" or "arrogance".

Berlusconi is the master of braggadocio. The battle ahead is not about the constitution or the laws or corruption. In his mind it is about him and who he is. It is yet another test that will determine who is the man. And he will "front up" his enemies.

Italians know this Berlusconi well. The swagger, he guesses, plays well particularly with male Italians. He is not ashamed of his womanising. He likes beautiful women, he says. His defence against the accusation that he slept with a prostitute is that he has never paid for sex. And, in any event, half the fun of having a woman lies in the chase. So, after months of sex scandals that have enlivened the summer reading for thousands of Italians, his popularity remains fairly high. A significant number of Italians have a sneaking admiration for this man who created a media empire from nothing and ridicules his accusers.

This time, however, he is weakened. Two trials will be reopened against him. No one thinks that he will immediately be forced from office, but two dangers lie ahead for him. Firstly, will he retain the support of his coalition, particularly Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the lower house? He came out and said the premier must "respect the constitutional court and the head of state". If he were to break with Berlusconi that might be the beginning of the end. Secondly, public opinion. Berlusconi sets great store by the fact that he remains popular. If the people deserted him that could push him towards the exit.

His defence will be that he is the victim of leftist newspapers and parts of the judiciary. There will be plenty of people who believe that. The curse of Italy is that politics has become so polarised. The benefit for Berlusconi is that he can dismiss all charges as political attacks by his enemies. He is also helped by the fact that the opposition is in disarray. Some even say that the courts are the real opposition.

So, for the moment, he is likely to survive. But a key stone in his defences has been removed. Some will worry that the continuing soap opera will distract from the tough economic decisions that need to be made.

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