Defiant Berlusconi slain by markets

By Victor L. Simpson

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, left, smiles to Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna upon his arrival at the lower chamber on the occasion of a voting session in Rome, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. Premier Silvio Berlusconi promised Tuesday to resign after parliament passes economic reforms demanded by the European Union, capping a two-decade political career that has ended with Italy on the brink of being swept into Europe's debt crisis.

Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

ROME — Silvio Berlusconi survived sex scandals and corruption trials. Tawdry accounts of sexy "bunga bunga" parties turned him into an international laughing stock. Prosecutors pursued him over a mind-boggling array of suspected improprieties.

Every time he seemed finished, the perma-tanned premier managed to miraculously bounce back.

But he just couldn't beat the markets.

Berlusconi announced Tuesday he would resign after parliament passes economic reforms demanded by the European Union. He acted in the face of a relentless investor attack on Italy's government bonds and crumbling support in parliament, almost certainly ending a political career in which he achieved the feat of becoming his nation's longest-serving premier.

The media baron dominated Italian politics for nearly two decades. He served as premier three times over the past 17 years — a charismatic if polarizing figure who sold Italians a dream of prosperity with his own personal story of transformation from cruise-ship crooner to Italy's richest man. He also owns AC Milan, one of Italy's famous soccer clubs.

But in his last years in power, he became almost a grotesque caricature of the charming billionaire who cast a spell over his nation.

The hair transplants and plastic surgery became all too obvious. His reputation as a seducer gave way to allegations of trysts with prostitutes and underage girls. He embarrassed Italy with jaw-dropping gaffes at international summits.

Accusations grew that he was in politics not for Italy's sake but for his own — to boost his business interests and change laws to shield himself from prosecution.

As pressure for his resignation grew, he remained defiant, labeling opponents "communists" to be kept at bay and prosecutors as "terrorists" defying the will of the people who elected him.

Even as his allies were defecting, he anointed himself Italy's savior at the close of the Group of 20 summit in Cannes, France, last week.

"I feel a duty to continue these things," he said. "This is a great duty and sacrifice for me. Here, at the Cannes summit, I looked around and I don't see anyone in Italy who is up to representing our country. I asked myself, you could represent Italy if I weren't there?"

But he had only so many political lives. The magnetic smile, the confident wisecracking, the perennial optimism were no longer reassuring.

When Italy became the new focus of the eurozone debt crisis, the financial markets delivered their verdict: Berlusconi himself was the problem. He lacked the political clout to quickly pass the needed measures to boost growth and cut debt. To use a metaphor from his beloved sport of soccer, it was game over.

But ousting Berlusconi wasn't easy.

"He's not the retiring type. ... It's very much a personal trait, he really thinks he's the best in the world," said James Walston, a professor of political science at Rome's American University.

The ultimate fear that clinched political change was that Italy would not be able to pay for its enormous €1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion) debt. That is too expensive for Europe to handle, and could trigger a default that would break up the 17-nation eurozone and drag down the global economy.

Berlusconi had used television and his own wealth to build a political career. He boasted of his riches and kept a lavish lifestyle that included partying with young women.

"I'm no saint," he said defiantly after his wife of almost 20 years announced she was seeking a divorce in 2009.

But the scandals picked up steam. First a self-described call girl said she went to bed with Berlusconi on the night that Barack Obama was elected U.S. president.

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