Berlusconi is back
ROME -- So the people of Italy have called back Il Cavaliere, their knight in shining armour, to rescue them in their hour of need.
Silvio Berlusconi perhaps makes an unlikely knight – but he earned his nickname many years ago, and it stuck. Now, he’s won his third election victory in 14 years, and he has a comfortable parliamentary majority to help him drag Italy out of the economic morass into which it has been slipping.
But isn’t he a corrupt buffoon, you may ask. Corrupt? Well, he’s faced plenty of allegations – and criminal investigations – but he’s never been convicted. As for a buffoon, well, maybe, but there’s no harm, he seems to think, in making people laugh.
Don’t forget, Berlusconi is a self-made billionaire, and buffoons don’t often make that kind of money. The secret of his political success has been to persuade enough Italian voters that he can be as successful in making their country rich again as he has been in business. The last time he was in office, between 2001 and 2006, he became Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II. So if he is a clown, there may be method in his apparent madness.
He’s now 71, and when I watched him on his last pre-election TV appearance, I thought he looked tired and surprisingly lacking in enthusiasm at the prospect of the task ahead that victory would bring. But he enjoys success, and he enjoys popularity – as the scale of his election victory became clear, he thanked Italian voters for the faith they’d shown in him, and signed off with a kiss for them all.
One word of warning: he is not a huge fan of the European Commission in Brussels. They have a habit of asking questions about possible conflicts of interest between his vast business empire and his political day-job. Is it right for a prime minister to own three commercial television channels and a major national newspaper? Does it matter that as prime minister he also has indirect control over the country’s state-owned TV network? Brussels thinks it does matter, and has said so. Berlusconi doesn’t see the problem.
Last time round, his closest allies on the international stage were Tony Blair and George Bush. One has already gone; the other will be gone in less than a year. He shares with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, a love of the flamboyant and impatience with the traditional way of doing things. They also share an undisguised weakness for the company of beautiful women. So I rather suspect he’ll get on a lot better with M Sarkozy than he will with Gordon Brown or Angela Merkel.