Loyal support in unusual places keeps Berlusconi in power, despite his exotic love lifeby Peter Popham / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Over the past 20 years many leaders of great power and solidity have been suddenly overthrown. Italy experienced such a moment in 1992 when a national bribery scandal brought down most of its political class. And its current leader, Silvio Berlusconi, has seemed ripe for a judicial variant of the Ceausescu treatment ever since he was first elected in 1994. So what sort of hold does this ageing, lecherous plutocrat have over his people that prevents them getting rid of him?
There has always been ammunition: the alleged mafia connections; opaque financing of his television empire; strong-arm business tactics and questionable accounting practices. Magistrates laboured for years to build corruption charges against him. But bloody-minded determination, and an ability to occasionally rewrite the law, means he remains untouched.
If the law can’t bring him down, some think his weakness for girls might. The Italian press has been filled for months with lubricious details of the 72-year-old grandfather’s flings and private parties. Leaders elsewhere might fantasise about such things, but one cannot think of another democracy where a prime minister would survive them. Yet Berlusconi shrugs it off. His popularity has dipped fractionally but remains close to 50 per cent.
Back in 1994 Berlusconi, much like Margaret Thatcher, won by appealing to an aspirational lower-middle class that had lost patience with the ruling elite. Here was the consummate anti-politician who brought Dynasty to their televisions and whose success might rub off on them.
Women, in particular, loved him. Loud, glossy female supporters were a feature of his support from the outset. Some see this as the all-forgiving love of the Italian mamma for her spoiled brat, and there is an element of truth here. But at the same time he was gallant to his own mother, provided handsomely for his wife and children, went to church when required, and took care to maintain la bella figura—good appearances. A chaotic private life and a compulsion to seduce were just part of the charm.
Many Italians seem to have found little that is truly shocking in the latest allegations. Berlusconi, they say, has always been like this. He had three children out of wedlock before divorcing his first wife and marrying his mistress. Even then he was endlessly promiscuous: the late Carlo Caracciolo, founder of the newspaper La Repubblica, recalled breakfast meetings before Berlusconi entered politics where “he used to bring a…