The world's most politically incorrect national leader

He is indeed a phenomenon. Italy was once known for constantly changing governments but no more. Berlusconi remains in charge year after year. The article below describes him as quintessentially Italian and I see it that way too. I quite admire Italians in many ways (particularly their instinctive disrespect for authority) and I always enjoy hearing of Silvio's latest capers -- JR

The late Professor Norberto Bobbio, one of Italy's greatest postwar political thinkers, authors and legal philosophers, once described Silvio Berlusconi as the incarnation of the demagogue of ancient times: "Berlusconi, in essence, is the tyrant of the classics, the man who believes it licit to do what mere mortals only dream. The defining characteristic of the man-tyrant is the belief he 'can' everything."

Bobbio, who witnessed the rise of Mussolini and was active in the anti-Fascist resistance, died in 2004 but spent the last years of his life writing about - and fighting - the phenomenon he termed "Berlusconismo".

Today, as the Italian Prime Minister battles what appears to be the umpteenth personal sex scandal and a first, truly dangerous mutiny inside his party, the prescience of the esteemed professor's observations seems almost unearthly.

"Those who voted Forza Italia," Bobbio wrote in 1996, "did not choose policy but a person … a gentleman, always elegant, well versed in the art of attracting attention … every now and then resorting to the skills of an old clown to tell a joke … equally brilliant at evoking empathy for his role as a victim of plots and conspiracies, of betrayals, and innocent target of cruel enemies and evil allies."

Just as Bobbio pinpointed 14 years ago, Berlusconi this week chose to dismiss another round of sordid revelations and priapic adventures as a "paper storm", a product of the "obsessions" of the print media whipped up by "political enemies".

"So I am passionate about gorgeous girls … better than being gay," he joked.

He also hinted at a meeting of his party's leadership on Thursday that the Mafia might be framing him as a reprisal for recent police successes.

"No one today can rule out with certainty that certain things that are happening are not the fruits of an underworld vendetta," he said. "In what other country in the world would the head of the government have to defend himself against a barrage of made-up stories?"

But this time, the spectre of illegality - Berlusconi's intervention to secure the release from custody of a 17-year-old Moroccan dancer, Karima Keyek, and €5000 ($6993) payments for sex with a 28-year-old escort - has elicited tough criticism not just from his political enemies but from centre-right allies too.

This abuse of the power of his office - asking Milanese police to release the dancer after she was arrested for stealing €3000 from a friend - involved a lie: Berlusconi allegedly told police she was a relative of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and she was subsequently freed.

A former political ally, the parliamentary Speaker Gianfranco Fini, warned that if the claims were substantiated the Prime Minister should step down.

"It would indicate a nonchalance, a corruption symptomatic of the use of state office for private gain," Fini said.

Even the right-wing Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, has criticised Berlusconi's intervention, while the front page of the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, did the unthinkable and published critical observations by a right-wing commentator, Marcello Veneziani, who described the Prime Minister's conduct as "ugly".

And yet despite national and international derision sparked this week by the dancer's mention of "bunga bunga" (a mysterious group sex practice), Berlusconi may still have enough support to weather this storm too.

A poll taken before the latest scandal broke revealed that his People of Liberty party remains Italy's most popular.

Berlusconi's seemingly inexplicable ability to be absolved of all sins by so many voters - or indeed have them ignored - has prompted the author and commentator Beppe Severgnini to write a book explaining the phenomenon to non-Italians.

Severgnini says that wherever he travels in the world, people are mystified by the 20 year electoral success of the 74-year-old known as Il Cavaliere.

"There is a reason … In fact, there are 10," says Severgnini. First and foremost, Berlusconi appeals to the everyman.

"Mr B. adores his kids, talks about his mamma, knows his football, makes money, loves new homes, hates rules, tells jokes, swears a bit, adores women, likes to party and is convivial to a fault. He has a long memory and a knack for tactical amnesia.

"He's unconventional, but knows the importance of conforming. He extols the church in the morning, the family in the afternoon, and brings girlfriends home in the evening. [He] is great entertainment value, so he gets away with plenty. Many Italians ignore his conflicts of interest (haven't we all got 'em?), his legal issues (a defendant is easier to like than a judge) and his inappropriate remarks (he's so spontaneous!).

"What do most Italians think? 'He looks like us. He's one of us.' And the ones who don't are afraid he might be."


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