He's the Great Houdini of world politics. Buffeted by scandal, convicted of corruption, abandoned by allies, Silvio Berlusconi has been written off countless times over the two decades in which he has dominated Italian politics — and each time he made a miraculous escape from the political dead.
Not tales of hot "bunga bunga" parties, nor charges of wrecking Italy's economy, nor sex and bribery trials, nor the chants of "buffoon" that hounded him from office two years ago have been enough to remove Berlusconi from politics — or even put a wrinkle in his tight perma-tan.
When he was forced to resign as premier in late 2011, the world's media — including The Associated Press — wrote Berlusconi's political obituary. A year later, Berlusconi led his party to a strong election finish that returned him to the heart of Italian politics.
But this week, it really may be time to say "Bye-Bye Berlusconi." On Wednesday, the billionaire mogul was forced into a devastating retreat in his campaign to bring down the government, after his own lieutenants rose up in mutiny. And on Friday, lawmakers are expected to strip Berlusconi of his Senate seat — banishing him from politics.
So surely, surely there's no way back for Silvio now?
Readers can judge for themselves in this chronicle of Berlusconi's amazing escapes.
Berlusconi launched his political career in the 1990s as Italy's great salesman, hawking his vision of can-do success to a mesmerized public. But he hasn't been able to translate those communication skills on the international stage — committing gaffes that might have been fatal for other world leaders. Facing criticism in 2003 at the European parliament by a German lawmaker, Berlusconi compared his adversary to a concentration camp guard: "Mr. Schulz, I know there is in Italy a man producing a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of Kapo. You'd be perfect." In 2005, Berlusconi bragged that he had to charm Finland's president into giving up her nation's bid to host a European food authority: "I had to use all of my playboy tactics," he quipped. And after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Berluconi saluted the new American president as "handsome, young and also suntanned." Many Italians seemed to brush it all off with the attitude: It's just Silvio, having a bit of fun.
One was a teenage Moroccan dubbed by the press as "Ruby the Heart-stealer." Another was a high-class hooker who produced tapes of Berlusconi allegedly sweet-talking her in his Rome residence. Then there was the 18-year-old Neapolitan who purportedly called him "Papi" — "Daddy" — and was the chief reason that his wife, disgusted with what she called his "cavorting with minors," left him in 2009. Berlusconi has never denied a weakness for beautiful women, saying with a twinkle in his eye that he's "no saint," but the endless stream of sleaze surrounding tales of "bunga bunga" parties shadowed the end of his career — and landed him in legal trouble. This year, a court convicted Berlusconi of sex with a minor and abuse of power over his tryst with Ruby, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug. Here again, many Italians — men and women alike — responded either with a shrug or a twinge of admiration.
BROKEN NOSE, NOT BROKEN MAN:
At the end of a rambunctious 2009 filled with sex scandal, Berlusconi held a rally in Milan in which he declared, among other things, that he was a "good-looking" man. After the speech, as Berlusconi waded through the adoring crowd toward his chauffeur-driven car, a man with a history of mental illness clubbed him with a souvenir replica of the Milan cathedral — smashing two teeth, breaking his nose and cutting his lip. The attack hardly slowed Berlusconi down. In fact, it provoked an outpouring of sympathy from around Italy, bolstering his standing at a delicate political time. And after numerous sessions of reconstructive surgery, the famously pampered visage was once again beaming confidently to the cameras. Silvio was back — but not for long.
The jeers split the air outside Rome's presidential palace and a band of revelers erupted in a rendition of Handel's "Alleluia!" It was Nov. 12, 2011 — and Berlusconi had just handed in his resignation. The man who had cast a spell over Italy with his infectious optimism and spectacular success had finally lost the heart of a nation worn out by an endless stream of muck about sexual misdeeds, unbridled corruption and economic bungling that critics said had driven Italy to the brink of a financial abyss. Markets were panicking over Italy's colossal debt, and even some of Berlusconi's allies felt it was time for him to go. But as his successor — the sober economist Mario Monti — pursued a policy of austerity that alienated Italians, Berlusconi began making rumbles of a comeback. When he launched his campaign, Berlusconi's fuzzy promises of revival and tax largesse began to sound pretty good. Berlusconi's party came in a strong second place — and went on to join Enrico Letta's coalition government.
Then in August, Italy's highest court put its stamp of finality on one of several Berlusconi graft convictions, capping years of legal wrangling in which the media tycoon filed appeal after appeal — all the while remaining Italy's dominant political figure. The four-year prison sentence would have been the death knell of any other politician. But not Berlusconi. No sooner had the court ruled than the conservative leader was back in attack mode — broadcasting a nationwide video in which he vowed to stay in politics and revive "Forza Italia!" ("Let's Go Italy!"), the movement that launched his political career. He stayed out of jail under rules allowing the elderly to serve sentences at home or by carrying out community service. Allies were soon predicting that the nation's revered president would issue a pardon. And until this week's dramatic events, Berlusconi made it clear that he was the one calling the shots in his political camp.
Berlusconi could still land in prison: He was handed a seven-year sentence in the Ruby case — and if he loses his appeal, it's possible he'll end up behind bars.
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In the end, Berlusconi's biggest enemies may have turned out to be his best friends. Throughout his long career Berlusconi has been laid low time and again by allies who have betrayed him at critical moments. The media mogul's love-hate, on-again-off-again political marriage with the populist Northern League is the key example: They caused his first government to collapse in 1994 when they yanked support amid noisy bickering. Berlusconi also had a rocky partnership with the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance: In 2010, the party's leader withdrew his backing for the government, triggering a no-confidence vote that Berlusconi barely squeaked through. In 2011, it was a rebellion by members of Berlusconi's own party that forced him to resign in disgrace, as markets lost confidence in Italy's economy.
And on Wednesday, Berlusconi's top deputies balked at his order to bring down Letta's government in a no-confidence vote — paving the way for Friday's vote to strip him of his Senate seat.