April 29, 2006

Berlusconi “The Knight” loses battle to keep power

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - With a nickname like "The Knight," Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi could hardly have been expected to
simply surrender.

But the man who once said being a loser and giving up was
not part of his DNA finally decided to quit on Saturday after
three weeks of political wrangling following the narrowest
election defeat in modern Italian history.

Crying foul, he had demanded a review of disputed ballots.
Irresponsible, unrealistic and unfair, said his critics. But it
was not out of character.

Berlusconi's battle to stay in office was an example of the
determination that propelled the son of a bank branch employee
to become Italy's richest man and head of its longest serving

"It's absolutely in his character... He doesn't just give
up," said pollster Renato Mannheimer.

The 69-year-old media tycoon has sold most things in his
career: essays to school friends, vacuum cleaners, housing
developments, soap operas, adverts, books, magazines, insurance
policies and soccer stars.

But survival in the prime minister's office proved to be
too tough to sell after centre-left leader Romano Prodi
declared victory in April 9-10 national elections.

Berlusconi's career began with a big bet during the Milan
property boom of the 1960s, building housing estates. He then
moved into television and never looked back.

With a gleaming smile and year-round tan, Berlusconi first
shot into politics in January 1994 promoting a "you can be rich
like me" message that Italians bought into as readily as the
goods advertised on his television channels.


He launched his political party Forza Italia (Go Italy) in
an address to the nation broadcast over his three television
channels, presenting Europe with a new kind of leader -- a
Citizen Kane figure who put style at the heart of his message.

Within three months he was elected prime minister but his
government fell apart before the year was out, destroyed by
internal coalition feuding for which Italy is infamous.

Although many pundits wrote him off as a flash in the pan,
he proved them wrong with a triumphant return to power in 2001
at the head of a centre-right administration that managed to
stay together longer than any previous government.

Many Europeans were baffled by his victory.

How could Berlusconi take office, the foreign media asked,
when he was embroiled in endless corruption investigations and
when he had a monumental conflict of interest between his
public duties and his huge, omnipresent media empire?

Berlusconi always dismissed such concerns as irrelevant and
many Italians agreed, blocking out the doubts and focusing
instead on his upbeat promises of prosperity.

But after five years of sluggish economic growth that
message wore thin and opinion polls predicted Berlusconi would
lose the April 9-10 ballot. Even his last-minute promises of
tax cuts failed to lift hopes of a comeback.

However, after an ugly campaign in which he called
centre-left voters masochistic "assholes," Berlusconi defied
widespread expectations of a clear election defeat.

The billionaire, who once worked as a cruise-ship crooner,
said if he were defeated he would set sail on a yacht to Tahiti
-- a splendid way to celebrate his forthcoming 70th birthday.

Berlusconi, head of Italy's largest centre-right political
party, lashed out at adversaries just days before the ballot,
particularly a judiciary he accuses of being politically

"I feel as strong as a lion," said Berlusconi. "I will
never surrender to the left."