Silvio Berlusconi (1936- )
By Rick Steves
Italy's richest man ($12 billion) is also its most powerful. As the owner of most of Italy's major TV stations — as well as magazines, books, the AC Milan soccer team, and large construction companies — his decisions influence many aspects of Italians' everyday lives. Did I mention he's also Prime Minister, having been re-elected in May of 2005? Silvio Berlusconi is now Italy's longest-reigning head of state since World War II.
Berlusconi first came to power in 1994 after single-handedly creating his own political party, called Forza Italia ("Go, Italy!" — a soccer chant used to root on the national squad). Politically, the party follows a moderate course while also courting northern Italian extremists who want to break from the south, as well as southern neo-fascists and xenophobes. A self-made man, Berlusconi sees himself as the champion of individual freedom against a stagnant bureaucracy. This makes him skeptical of expanding the European Union and of imposing economic restrictions like the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Berlusconi supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq despite overwhelming public opposition.
Berlusconi's fans think he's exactly the right man for the job — a forceful captain of industry who can run government more efficiently than left-wing bureaucrats. He's dynamic, enthusiastic, comfortable on TV, and very image-conscious (including airbrushed photos, a face-lift, and hair plugs). Newspapers call him Il Cavaliere ("the horseman"), reinforcing his image as a bold, even "cavalier" adventurer.
Critics, on the other hand, dislike many things about Berlusconi — most notably that they're convinced he's a crook. During the 1990s, when Italians finally broke the back of the Mafia, many of Berlusconi's business associates were convicted of corruption. Berlusconi himself was tried and convicted in 1997 and 1998 of tax evasion and bribery. After being re-elected in 2001, he promptly passed laws giving himself immunity. The case is on appeal.
Aside from actual crimes, people wonder how Berlusconi can possibly avoid conflicts of interests as head of so many powerful institutions, both private and public. If the government, the media, and much of the economy are controlled by one man, what does that say about democracy? Italy's economy is currently stagnant, which is especially hard on the middle class. Nobody seems to be getting ahead...except Berlusconi and his associates. But so far, Berlusconi's coalition of centrist and right-wing parties has given him just enough political capital to keep the many critics at bay.
The Prime Minister is elected to a five-year term, but a lack of confidence in the government may force earlier elections — in which case, Berlusconi would likely face a center-left coalition (called Ulivo, or "Olive Tree") headed by former Prime Minister Romano Prodi. Whether Italy heads center-left or center-right, there now appears to be one thing that's been missing from Italian politics for 50 years — a center.