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  • Silvio Berlusconi: Will his business genius ever carry over into politics?
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    God has a destiny in mind for each of us, or at least that is what I prefer to believe. Il Signore certainly gave Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi the right combination of intelligence, charm, good looks, ingenuity and bravado to become the world's richest politician, with an estimated net worth of more than $10 billion, mostly off his media empire. Dio put business in the man's blood.

    Just last week, Berlusconi met with his U.S. counterpart President George W. Bush at the Bush ranch in Texas. A staunch supporter of Bush and the war in Iraq, Berlusconi has often said that he will get behind all things American. But what does this alliance really mean for Italy, its economy and its political power in an increasingly global marketplace?

    A business man-turned-politician himself, Bush certainly has a deeper understanding and tighter bond with Berlusconi, especially in comparison to other European leaders, namely France's President Jacque Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Gerard Schroeder, who remain critical of the recent war. Berlusconi, who refuses most interviews, even though he owns most of the media outlets in Italy, told Time last week that he relates well to President Bush. “We also share an ideal that whoever is the leader must show the people the right road,” he said. “We only met two years ago, but I feel I know him like I know my grammar school friends.” The duo met privately at the ranch, according to CNN reports, to discuss rebuilding Iraq and to send the message that not all of Europe is anti-American or opposed to U.S. foreign policy.

    That is all fine and well. In fact, it's great politics to get in bed with the United States, the world's only super power at the moment. However, whether Italian companies will reap the rewards when the reconstruction of Iraq is in full swing remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, Berlusconi seems to have done his best to put Italy's interests at the forefront of Bush's mind.

    But back home in Italy, Berlusconi has some explaining to do. For starters, charges of bribery and connections to the mafia in his pre-prime minister days resurfaced as Italy began its six-month-long turn as president of the European Union just a few weeks ago. (For more information on how the EU and its rotating presidency functions, click here: Berlusconi was on trial for allegedly bribing judges to win favorable rulings in a 1980 takeover battle, according to Reuters. In the weeks before Italy's stint as EU president began, Berlusconi supporters helped pass a controversial law that would grant legal immunity to Italy's prime minister while he remains in office. The law, which might be unconstitutional, is currently under investigation by Italy's Supreme Court. In the meantime, Berlusconi is off the hook – legally, that is.

    That said, he still has to answer to the Italian people and leaders in the rest of the world. At the start of Italy's presidency at a meeting of the European Parliament, German lawmaker, Martin Shulz, a socialist, questioned Berlusconi about the possible conflicts of interest in light of the bribery scandal and immunity law. “I know in Italy there is a producer, producing a film on Nazi concentration camps,” Berlusconi responded. “I will suggest you for the role of commander. You would be perfect for that role.” This now infamous quote sparked fury throughout Europe and even had some calling for Berlusconi's resignation.

    The ever-proud Berlusconi refused to apologize. Even Schroeder threatened to cancel his already planned Italian vacation in protest. But Berlusconi managed to smooth things over with a phone call that explained the situation was a misunderstanding that he regretted. Although things have cooled among the EU leaders, Berlusconi (and Italy, subsequently) started his term off on the wrong foot and has lots to prove moving forward.

    If anyone can make a comeback, it is Berlusconi, who is no stranger to controversy. Born in Milan on September 29, 1936, Berlusconi has grown from the son of working class parents – his father worked in a bank and his mother was a housewife – to Italy's richest man and leader. This is the kid who reportedly charged his classmates to see puppet shows in elementary school and to do their homework at university. He was a born entrepreneur.

    In his early years, he sold vacuums, worked as a photographer and even sang on cruise ships (and now plans to record a song with Italian musician Gigi D'Alessio). After graduating, he launched his career in real estate and led the Milan property boom. He bought a cable shopping channel in the mid-1970s and by 1986 had control of about 80 percent of Italy's commercial TV market, according to BBC News. And 1986 was also the year Berlusconi purchased A.C. Milan, one of the world's most successful and popular soccer teams

    He organized his political party, Forza Italia, named after a popular soccer chant, in 1993. The first time he was elected prime minister, he was forced to resign after only seven months, a common occurrence in a country known for changing government officials as often as some people change underwear. Berlusconi's ownership of the majority of media outlets in Italy was cause for debate about his conflicts of interests as a politician and businessman. He passes the criticism off as hog wash. He left it up to the people to decide and in 2001, the people re-elected him, giving him a second chance at ministering Italia.

    What does the future hold? Only God knows. But Berlusconi seems to think that he is right on track to fulfill Il Signore's plans. He has said that he is motivated by the knowledge “that only I can turn this country around.” Yes, but what goes around, comes around, right?


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