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Berlusconi: Italian politics' billionaire king

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is set to resign this month following the adoption of a key economic plan, has been a larger-than-life figure for nearly two decades.

world Updated: Nov 09, 2011 02:05 IST

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is set to resign this month following the adoption of a key economic plan, has been a larger-than-life figure for nearly two decades.

Better known in recent years for his clownish antics and a growing list of raunchy sex scandals at home, Berlusconi cut a dash as a bullish billionaire when he burst onto Italy's corruption-ridden political scene in the early 1990s.

Berlusconi founded a party named after the football chant "Forza Italia" ("Go Italy") and went on to win three elections, initially enjoying wide support from the middle classes with his economically liberal rhetoric.

But the defection last year of a key ally and bitter infighting within the government signalled the start of a steady decline intensified by Italy's failure to kick-start economic growth after years of virtual stagnation.

Born in Milan in 1936 to a middle-class family, Berlusconi gained a keen business sense from his bank-clerk father and showed entrpreneurial zeal from a young age by getting classmates to pay for help with their homework.

As a young man, he worked stints as a vacuum cleaner salesman and a cruise-ship singer before graduating in commercial law in 1961 with a thesis on advertising -- though he continued to write albums of love songs.

He then embarked on a career in the booming construction business by persuading the head of his father's bank to stand guarantee for him.

The mystery surrounding the source of funding for his ambitious garden city project on the outskirts of Milan -- Milan Two -- would lead critics to repeatedly accuse the future prime minister of links with organised crime.

Though several Mafia turncoats claimed that Berlusconi had connections with the Sicilian crime syndicate, the premier has always denied any ties and claimed to be the victim of a plot by left-wing prosecutors and politicians to unseat him.

He has been dogged by legal woes for much of his business and political career and, by his own count, has been interrogated 577 times and made 2,500 court appearances -- at a legal cost of 200 million euros ($275 million).

Despite some initial convictions, charges against Berlusconi have always either been dismissed on appeal or expired under the statute of limitations, with critics accusing him of using his office to delay the course of justice or alter the law in his favour.

The 75-year-old Berlusconi is currently a defendant in three trials -- for tax fraud, bribery, abuse of power and paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl -- but denies the charges.

In 1978 Berlusconi set up Fininvest, a holding company which grew to include several major household names, including Mediaset -- with three national television channels -- and AC Milan, one of the world's leading football clubs.

He topped the Forbes list of Italy's wealthiest for 10 years as his successful business empire continued to expand, and he is still the third richest -- reportedly spending vast sums on presents for young escorts.

Berlusconi was first elected in 1994 but a controversial coalition with the neo-fascist National Alliance and the populist Northern League quickly turned sour and the government collapsed just seven months later.

In 2001 Berlusconi won again after a heavy media campaign, which included personally sending an illustrated booklet boasting of his entrepreneurial, sporting and political achievements to 15 million Italian homes.

He remained in power until 2006 in what turned out to be the longest premiership in the history of post-war Italy and the first to last a full five-year term -- defying Italy's long history of political turmoil.

But while he was credited by some with bringing new stability, critics said Berlusconi's stewardship spelled disaster for Italy's public accounts by cutting taxes purely for political gain and enriching his businesses.

Berlusconi defied critics and opponents to win once more in 2008, but his government was riven by bitter infighting and economic pressures and he was forced to call at least 50 votes of confidence to hold on to power.

The premier faced a parliamentary crisis in 2010 in a dramatic showdown with his one-time ally, speaker of parliament Gianfranco Fini, who split from the party following months of open hostility.

He survived a close confidence vote in December 2010 but came under ever-growing pressure after rating agencies downgraded Italy's debt and he lost three popular referendums on his government's policies.

The self-proclaimed Latin lover, who promoted several long-legged beauties to high political positions, was also accused by critics of tainting Italy's image abroad.

Thousands of Italian women took to the streets in February to protest his sexism.

Berlusconi once boasted openly about his model family life, despite divorcing his first wife Carla Elvira Dall'Oglio in 1985 for the stage actress Veronica Lario.

The media tycoon had two children with Dall'Oglio and three with Lario but his would-be family-man persona was ruined by revelations that he frequented young girls and Lario filed for divorce in 2009.

He recently admitted he was "no saint".

Berlusconi's latest ratings gave him just 22 percent popular support and he seemed increasingly out of touch with ordinary Italians -- though an increasingly decrepit-looking premier has been denying his decline to the last.

First Published: Nov 09, 2011 02:02 IST