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May 15, 2001 - Berlusconi is elected Italy's President - 09

Silvio Berlusconi

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Silvio Berlusconi
In 1989, one of the featured stories in TVI Magazine, was about Silvio Berlusconi -- "Italy's Men of Vision & Broadcasting and The early years of Berlusconi". The article written by Dr. Frank Iezzi Ph.D. -- quoted Berlusconi's statements that: -- "he never hires anyone over thirty-something".
Silvio Berlusconi's term as Italy's prime minister in 1994 lasted only seven stort months, that included a visit to Pasadena, California, during the World Cup Soccer Championship. Shortly after the match, the magnate left the office amid a corruption crackdown.
Of course today in May 2001, 13 years later, his taste for a political life has changed his mind. Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's is making a comeback at the age of 64 - to prove a point in Italian society. Some say it's shameful, others see him as a reformer -- after coming clean and explaining how and why he became Italy's first billionaire.
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Benito Mussolini

Photo: Prime ministerial candidate Silvio Berlusconi campaigning in Rome, May 2001.


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Silvio Berlusconi

In 1989, one of the featured stories in TVI Magazine, was about Silvio Berlusconi -- "Italy's Men of Vision & Broadcasting and The early years of Berlusconi". The article written by Dr. Frank Iezzi Ph.D. -- quoted Berlusconi's statements that: -- "he never hires anyone over thirty-something".

Silvio Berlusconi's term as Italy's prime minister in 1994 lasted only seven stort months, that included a visit to Pasadena, California, during the World Cup Soccer Championship. Shortly after the match, the magnate left the office amid a corruption crackdown.
- 09 May 15, 2001 - Berlusconi is elected ITALY's PRESIDENT. ROME--As official returns confirmed his coalition's decisive victory in Italian elections, Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant billionaire tycoon, filled the airwaves Monday night with the measured tones of a statesman and humble servant of the people.

There were no self-comparisons with Napoleon, no tirades against Communists, prosecutors, journalists and others on his enemies list. Instead, he sounded unusually solicitous and, by his standards, dull.

Having defeated the leftists who have governed since 1996, Berlusconi is returning to the prime minister's office with a stronger mandate than most Italian leaders ever get--one he pledges to use to modernize the country with the Midas touch of a man worth $12.8 billion.

But the 64-year-old media magnate is vulnerable and must watch his every step. He has been indicted on charges of tax fraud and bribery of judges. He is under scrutiny for any conflict between his public duties and vast private interests. And he is again at the mercy of a fickle ally whose defection 6 1/2 years ago ended Berlusconi's previous attempt at governing.

 

'He Can Be an Irate Person'

How Berlusconi navigates these obstacles will determine whether Italy remains a solid partner in Europe's monetary and political union, whose leaders tend to view him as an unsavory interloper, and whether his own country evolves into a more stable democracy.

"He can be an irate person," says James Walston, professor of political science at the American University of Rome. "If he loses his cool at the wrong time, it could cause some sort of crisis. Will he survive a five-year term? I wouldn't bet on it."

The winner's first steps after Sunday's election were cautious and low-key.

In remarks taped for broadcast Monday evening, Berlusconi said Italy is "proud to be part of the European Union" and will "work to reinforce those ties."

"We feel the responsibility of your free choice, and we assure you we will not let you down," he added.

Nearly complete returns Monday evening gave Berlusconi's center-right House of Freedoms alliance firm control of both houses of Parliament--177 of 324 seats in the Senate and at least 330 of 630 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

Adding up hundreds of local races, pollsters said Berlusconi's forces won roughly 45% of the popular vote to about 40% for the center-left Olive Tree coalition led by Rome's two-term former mayor, Francesco Rutelli.

Rutelli conceded defeat Monday but pledged that his coalition would "work day and night" to force Berlusconi to divest himself of his business empire, which includes Italy's three biggest private TV networks, its biggest publishing group and the AC Milan soccer team.

 

"That will be our first real test in opposition," Rutelli said.

Berlusconi says he is consulting three foreign "wise men" with the aim of offering a conflict-of-interest law within his first 100 days in office.

But he and the center-left have been at odds on the issue, particularly over a bill that would have allowed public servants to entrust their property to family members. Berlusconi, whose two grown children help manage his holding company, supported the bill, but it died in Parliament this year.

Rutelli's coalition also vows to resist a Berlusconi campaign promise to subject prosecutors, now part of Italy's independent judiciary, to government control. That effort could reignite a bitter battle that characterized Berlusconi's short-lived government in 1994.

Prosecutors began probing Berlusconi's past business practices while he was prime minister. His three subsequent convictions on corruption charges were overturned on appeal. If prosecutors press the two cases still pending, the tycoon-turned-prime minister could hide from prosecution behind his parliamentary immunity or become Italy's first postwar leader to stand trial while in office.

"It's not going to be easy for the prosecutors to keep pursuing such a popular figure," said Franco Pavoncello, political scientist at John Cabot University in Rome, "but they can't just throw out the cases."

Perhaps a bigger threat to Berlusconi is Umberto Bossi, the volatile coalition partner whose betrayal brought down Berlusconi's earlier government. A Berlusconi-inspired tax break that benefited the tycoon's businesses and an amnesty that freed his brother from prison were factors in Bossi's defection.

Bossi is still head of the Northern League, an extreme right-wing party whose attacks on illegal immigration border on racism. The league, which once advocated northern Italy's secession from the poorer south, saw its support cut by more than half in Sunday's vote, but its 4% showing was still pivotal for the center-right alliance.

Berlusconi insists that he has tied Bossi to a joint program that excludes secession or xenophobia, but it is unclear whether the magnate can control him this time.

 

 

'We Hope It Has Not Been Wasted Sacrifice'

Bossi's top aide, Roberto Maroni, complained Monday that the compromise with Berlusconi cost the league votes. "We hope it has not been wasted sacrifice," Maroni added, vowing to hold Berlusconi to a pledge to give more power to local governments. Another right-wing partner, the National Alliance, is cool to such a reform.

Because of his poor showing Sunday, "Bossi's space to maneuver has been reduced," said Sergio Romano, a conservative commentator and former ambassador to Russia. "But that doesn't mean he will stay in line. If he lets Berlusconi govern well, his party will disappear. He may have to destroy the coalition before it destroys him."

Berlusconi declined to say Monday whether Bossi will get a Cabinet post, but his presence in the coalition only compounds Berlusconi's image problem on a continent largely governed by left-leaning politicians.

His election got a cool reception in much of Europe. The best many leaders could say was that Berlusconi's coalition is not as racist as Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in Austria and will not by itself prompt the EU to slap sanctions on Italy as it did on Austria last year when Haider joined the government.

"The Italian people have spoken democratically," said French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. "But we are watching closely what this government will be and what it will do."

Because the EU's 15 countries are more closely knit than they were during Berlusconi's first term, his legal troubles and potential conflicts of interest will be of more concern to Italy's neighbors. Because of Europe's common currency, his business empire is more of a player on the continental stage.

"Suspicion will condition his relations with Italy's partners," Walston said. "Other European leaders aren't going to be rude to him, but they'll look at every decision he and his ministers make, in light of his business interests, and ask why are they doing it."

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- 10 Of course today in May 2001, 13 years later,
his taste for a political life has changed his mind. Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's is making a comeback at the age of 64 - to prove a point in Italian society. Some say it's shameful, others see him as a reformer -- after coming clean and explaining how and why he became Italy's first billionaire.

Silvio Berlusconi's term as prime minister in 1994 lasted only seven stormy months, that included a visit to Pasadena, California, during the World Cup Soccor Championship. But setting that aside, what matters now after his three subsequent convictions-- were overturned on appeal--for false business accounting and bribing the tax police, and the four indictments he still faces.

Nor does it matter much that Berlusconi,
Italy's richest person, wants to govern again without giving up control of the country's three largest private television networks and the rest of his corporate empire.

In Italy, where corruption is a native tradition and "conflict of interest" a foreign idea, polls make Berlusconi the favorite to lead the next government after parliamentary elections May 13.

To millions of voters, the 64-year-old tycoon who heads the center-right Freedom Alliance coalition the mogul from Milan stepped into the void left when a group of prosecuting magistrates brought down the parties that had ruled Italy since the end of World War II. But soon after his election, he too became a target of the "Clean Hands" anti-corruption crusade and remained under investigation after leaving office in disgrace.

Italy's recovery from all this upheaval,
though incomplete, is a European success story. The center-left Olive Tree coalition elected in 1996 has fixed the corruption-drained, debt-burdened economy and, to the surprise of the country's more disciplined neighbors, met the strict criteria for entering Europe's single-currency union. Inflation and unemployment have dropped steadily.

But Berlusconi's own recovery and his ongoing battle with the magistrates have kept Italian politics unsettled.

After the collapse of Benito Mussolini's
wartime dictatorship, Italians rigged the system in favor of small parties to prevent anyone from amassing too much power. The downside was a string of weak, often corrupt multi-party coalition governments--58 since the war--whose leaders felt more accountable to each other than to the electorate.

In the wake of Tangentopoli, reformers pushed for a U.S.-style two-party system and a stronger executive. But a bipartisan assembly on constitutional reform ended in failure two years ago after the center-left rejected Berlusconi's demand that the magistrates' powers be weakened.

The deadlock has deflated much of the initial public enthusiasm for political reform and weakened voter confidence in the center-left.

The Political System Is Like Israel's

Like Israel's 3 party for "political convenience" system, Italy has the same unwieldy amalgam Olive Tree convenient system, but has seven parties, that has bickered its way through three prime ministers in five years and nominated a fourth man, former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, 46, to lead its ticket in next month's vote. Berlusconi, the consistent voice of opposition for the last 6 1/2 years, outpolls Rutelli by anywhere from 3 to 10 percentage points in recent polls.

"We cleaned up the country's finances,
but we lost support because we fell short of our promise to deliver a new kind of politics," says Sen. Tana de Zulueta, a member of Rutelli's coalition. "A very large number of Italians now believe that politics are unreformable, and this cynicism benefits an outsider like Mr. Berlusconi."

As the rival coalitions make similar promises of lower taxes and a freer economy, Berlusconi has fended off every attempt to make his wealth, business ethics and would-be conflicts of interest the central campaign issues.

When an investigative reporter asserted
on state television that associates with Mafia ties financed Berlusconi's start in real estate in the 1970s, the candidate's approval ratings inched up. Public debate shifted quickly from mob money to the state channel's right to air such an allegation, which the candidate denied.

The muted reaction to such allegations is a measure of public boredom with Berlusconi's endless legal saga and his success in casting himself, with help from his TV networks, as a victim of judicial harassment.

"He's creating jobs for people,"
said Claudio Valorani, co-owner of a cafe near the Roman Colosseum. "Let him work."

Another measure of the tycoon's comeback is the eclipse of his nemesis, Antonio Di Pietro, poster boy of the Clean Hands crusade and a national hero in the 1990s. Today the former magistrate is a marginal politician leading a tiny reform party called Italy of Values and running a long-shot campaign for mayor of Milan.

"Twelve years after the fall of the Berlin Wall . . . our leaders are still debating left and right ideology, instead of legality and illegality," Di Pietro complains. "People are disillusioned with the way issues of criminality have become so politicized."

In fact, many Italians view the magistrates
as politically driven agents of a state that often makes up for negligence with sporadic excess. Or they accept Berlusconi's defense that in the 1980s and '90s, he, "like tens of thousands of other Italian businessmen, was subjected to a system of extortion [by the tax police] that we were powerless to oppose."

"It's amazing, but there's not a tremendous outcry against Berlusconi," says Franco Ferrarotti, sociology professor at the University of Rome. "Deep down, people regard entrepreneurial wealth as the ultimate proof of success. They distinguish between him and the old-style politicians, who became rich by stealing from the state. They don't see you as a threat to the public good if you spend your own money to acquire public office."

Berlusconi, whose fortune is estimated at $12.8 billion by Forbes magazine, is busy these days doing just that.

Kicking off his campaign this month,
he spent an estimated $20 million to publish his biography in the form of a 128-page magazine and mail a copy to each of Italy's 12 million households.

"An Italian Story," featuring gauzy photographs of the bronzed, smiling tycoon with his family, employees, voters and world leaders, depicts a self-made man achieving Italy's version of the American dream--corporate and political power, without the burden of American-style laws forcing one to choose between the two.

Because Italian industrialists were traditionally content to manipulate politics from behind the scenes, the term "conflict of interest" was rarely heard in Italian before Berlusconi's brief stint in office made it an issue. Italians now talk about conflitto d'interessi but are still struggling to grasp the concept.

Three years ago, in the spirit of bipartisan reform, the tycoon went along with a bill that would require entrepreneurs who join the government to sell their assets or place them in blind trusts. The bill passed the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house of Parliament, but stalled in the Senate until two months ago, when it was amended to bar such sales to one's relatives.

Berlusconi, who has five children,
objected to the change, and the bill died after returning to the lower house. If elected again, he says, he would do what he did last time: hand over his holding company, Fininvest, temporarily to his second-in-command. Fininvest controls his TV networks, Italy's largest publishing group, a film company and the AC Milan soccer team.

Influential conservatives have warned, however, that his every act as prime minister might come under scrutiny if he failed to divest himself of such diverse holdings. He would wind up, they note, controlling every major TV network, public and private--a concentration of media power almost unheard of in the West.

"He will be forced to spend much of his time
explaining that he doesn't use his companies to further his political battles and that he doesn't use his public position to favor his business," Sergio Romano, a conservative commentator and former Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Voters care far less. Berlusconi's dynamic image adds credibility to his promises for economic growth, public works and modernization.

"I'm sure that everyone in politics has conflicts of interest," says Roberto Di Carlo, who runs a small transport company in Rome. "The other side must have its own private interests--it just doesn't let you see them. But let's allow Berlusconi to govern for five years. I'd like to compare the results."

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