Op-Ed: Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has built an empire and survived repeated scandal. But this birthday, one message is clear: as the economy tanks, Italy has finally grown tired of his antics.
ROME - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is 75 years old today. But rather than counting his birthday surprises, he's staring at a mountain of troubles. The Cavaliere may still be putting on a happy face, but nearly the whole country, his own party included, is against him now.
"One thing is for sure, and that is that I'm having a shitty birthday." That's what Silvio Berlusconi is supposed to have said to an Italian Parliament member on Sept. 29 last year. It's unlikely that he's finding this one much better. The prime minister, who likes to flaunt a youthful image, turns 75 on Thursday.
But advancing years are the least of his worries: if he had a bad public image a year ago, it's just that much worse now. He and his government are in it up to their necks. The endless sex scandals, the court cases, and conflict within the coalition are all part of toxic brew.
But mainly it is the uproar caused by the debt crisis that has shredded the veil of words that Berlusconi has used for the past three years to hide his ineffective politics. He has become an additional risk factor for both the euro and Europe, and the words to his birthday song include thinly disguised and outright calls for him to step down. They are coming from everywhere, not just from left-of-center opponents, but also from his own party and business leaders as well.
Berlusconi is no longer perceived as competent to do his job, and yet he has said only that he will soldier on. One voice stood out particularly this week – that of the Church. Without naming Berlusconi outright, the head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, spoke of "lifestyles that are difficult to reconcile with the dignity of persons, institutions and public life."
Cardinal Bagnasco also said: "Dissolute behavior and inappropriate relationships are in themselves negative, and they also damage the social fabric." He said there was a need to "purify the air" so that future generations were not poisoned. Many in Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party were said to have been rendered speechless by the blistering words, before rallying and saying publicly that the Cardinal was not referring to anyone in particular -- just political leaders, and citizens in general.
But it is just those citizens who have finally lost all patience for the Berlusconi circus. His macho routine has worn thin. Many feel ashamed and repulsed by the revelations about his affairs. The droves of women he had delivered to his homes were supposed to wear low-cut necklines but no stilettos because "we are short" – that apparently being a royal we. He bragged of having 11 women lined up for sex on one occasion, but of only being able to "do" eight of them before tiring. The scenarios range from the bunga bunga parties in the western island of Sardinia to an escort ring run out of the eastern city of Bari.
Investigations are showing ever more clearly that Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, worth an estimated 7.8 billion euros, didn't pay for all of this out of his own pocket, and wove a web of corruption around himself.
And it was all caution to the wind where sex was concerned. First, investigators thought he was being blackmailed by one of the people who pimped women for him. Now Berlusconi is suspected of blackmailing the blackmailer into making false statements. So his birthday card from Bari is the news that the state prosecutor is opening an investigation into the matter.
Berlusconi wants to stay in power until his mandate expires in 2013 – but his country is tired of him now. He himself is looking burned out, and much older, even if he does have more dyed hair on his head now than he did a decade ago. He's hanging on to power by his nails.
He knows he's lost one of the main ingredients for his success – the instinct of knowing what the Italian people want. That, together with a complete absence of scruples, was his big talent both as an entrepreneur and a politician.
When he started out in politics, he was perceived as modern, and -- as someone who was not from the political establishment -- he promised new beginnings after the breakdown of the corrupt party system. His populist palaver and off-the-cuff humor appealed to many Italians, particularly less educated ones. He promised reforms and action, his success as an entrepreneur being the supposed guarantee of his ability to deliver.
Seeing the potential of private TV before others, Berlusconi was able to build up an international media empire. He flooded Italy with frivolous, low-brow programs apparently tailored to his own tastes: the likes of which the country had never seen before.
Berlusconi‘s media have profoundly changed people, culture and the media itself in Italy. His intuitive flair brought him not only wealth, but a great deal of sway over public opinion. Turncoat informants have repeatedly claimed that the Sicilian Mafia invested in both Berlusconi's construction projects and his broadcasting stations. Mafia rumors also hung over his Forza Italia party (which later became the PDL) through his association with Marcello dell" Utri who has been convicted pending appeal of collusion with the Sicilian mob.
And suspicion remains that Berlusconi only entered politics to save both his business empire and himself from legal proceedings. One thing is certain: during his four terms of office, laws were created that worked to the advantage of his companies and protected him. But such gifts to himself – even on his birthday – may have reached their expiration date.
Read the original article in German