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Berlusconi: The power of personality

g and compass

Monday, 14 May, 2001
Berlusconi: The power of personality

Silvio Berlusconi
Italian headline writers call him Il Cavaliere

Italy's richest man, the business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, is on his way back to power. His centre-right coalition was driven by Berlusconi's forceful personality and his catch-all campaign, promising tax cuts, better pensions, safer cities and jobs for all.

He is a great person - he is just so positive and a really great man

Roman voter on Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi's empire includes three television channels, Italy's biggest publishing house, an advertising agency, a major newspaper, and a leading a football team, AC Milan.

Critics accuse him of having too much control of the media, and fear he will exploit his power.

The 64-year-old politician's business interests have come under attack in several lengthy court trials for alleged bribery, corruption and tax evasion, but none of the charges have stuck. Neither have accusations of Mafia connections.

Italian public opinion did not seem worried.

Man of charisma

Mr Berlusconi sells himself as a strong leader and statesman - his party, founded in 1993, is called Forza Italia. Airbrushed campaign posters make him appear 10 years younger. Many Italians believe the hype.

Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi's critics accuse him of having too much power
Dr James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome, said Mr Berlusconi's popularity stemmed from his ability to inspire many Italians.

"The Italians seem to want to trust Mr Berlusconi because he sells himself as a man who has made millions out of nothing - a man who is a huge success in his own way and who will make Italy a huge success," he said.

Showbiz image

Only seven years ago Mr Berlusconi was forced to step down as prime minister after just seven months in a turbulent coalition which included many of the same men he was running with this time around.

But despite that, many voters see him as a fresh start. He certainly has unshakeable self-confidence and a legendary gift of the gab.

Francesco Rutelli
Francesco Rutelli is the main challenger to Berlusconi
In a recent interview Mr Berlusconi said he was driven by "the knowledge that only I can turn this country around".

The alternative, he said, was career politicians who were not up to the job.

Mr Berlusconi is a true showman, with a permanent tan and beaming smile. He has yachts, villas, a glamorous second wife and three young children. His son and daughter from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, help run his companies. The Italians even have a word to describe his flamboyant lifestyle: Berlusconismo.

It is just extraordinary that one man should have such resources

Tana de Zulueta, left-wing senator
His personal wealth is considerable. As part of his election campaign he sent out 12 million copies of his autobiography, at an estimated cost of $20m.

Tana de Zulueta, a left-wing member of the senate in Rome, said such stunts were typical Berlusconi.

"It was the most expensive self-promotion gambit that ever has been experimented in Europe," she said.

"It is a reflection of the person that is not only controlling the media as Italy's richest man, but it is just extraordinary that one man should have such resources."

Headline stealer

The governing left-wing coalition hoped the book would alienate potential voters, with its airs of grandeur. But Mr Berlusconi is a master tactician.

Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi has the gift of the gab that appeals to Italians
On the eve of a major campaign rally by the left-wing parties, Mr Berlusconi told journalists the left had mounted a hate campaign, and that he had cancelled his major rallies because of death threats.

The announcement grabbed headlines and stole the left's thunder.

Antonio Martino, a member of Mr Berlusconi's party, dismissed fears that a victorious Mr Berlusconi would exploit his business empire.

"I think if you want to use your power for personal gain you don't put yourself centre stage," he said.

"Because [then] you are under the control of democracy - there is a system of control in place."

Silvio Berlusconi
Italians are attracted to the tycoon's personal success story
Silvio Berlusconi was born in Milan 29 September 1936, the son of a local bank official. He did his law degree in Milan, and now has a 70-room mansion north of the city.

His business mind came into play at a young age - as a student he supplemented his income by charging fellow students for writing their exam papers. Later he worked as a singer with his own band on summer cruise ships.

In 1962 he founded a construction company, Elinord, and rode the Milan property boom. He took advantage of government deregulation of the television industry in the mid-1970s to buy Telemilano cable shopping channel, and by 1986 had captured 80% of Italy's commercial TV market.

He now controls three national TV channels: Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4. He bought AC Milan in 1986, and won control of the Mondadori publishing house in 1990. His declared annual income is $7.7m, and he has an estimated $11bn fortune.

There was a scandal in 1981 when Mr Berlusconi was revealed as a member of the P-2 Freemason's lodge, a secret network of politicians, businessmen and media figures. The group was disbanded, and Mr Berlusconi emerged unscathed.

Last year he acknowledged for the first time that he had suffered prostate cancer, but despite rumours to the contrary he insists he has been cured. He certainly appears to have unstoppable energy.

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