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Europe

The twilight of Berlusconi's long reign

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-11-13

After 17 years on the political scene, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi heeded calls to resign on Saturday, just hours after Italy's lower house gave final approval to a raft of unpopular austerity measures.

After 17 years on the political scene, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned on Saturday, just hours after parliament passed a series of economic reforms demanded by the European Union to prevent Italy from becoming the latest casualty of the eurozone’s deepening debt crisis.

Berlusconi's political position become untenable this week after his government survived a key budget vote in parliament by a very narrow margin, causing the embattled premier to lose his absolute majority.
 
Just prior to the vote, Berlusconi’s key coalition ally, Umberto Bossi, head of the far-right Northern League party, broke ranks and joined calls urging the 75-year-old prime minister to step down. Despite this spectacular show of dissent, Berlusconi managed to eke out 308 votes after the opposition abstained, but fell short of the 316 votes necessary for a clear majority in the lower house.
 
The vote came after the yield on Italian 10-year sovereign bonds rose to 6.73 percent, their highest level since the introduction of the euro, triggering fears that Italy may be forced into seeking a bailout.
 
The long road to power

Berlusconi’s nearly two-decade-long political career has been marked by opposition and occasionally even defeat, but "Il Cavaliere" has always bounced back. Not so this time.

Berlusconi faces a string of court cases on charges including tax evasion, sex with a minor and graft.
Berlusconi first rose to power in 1994, when he took over Italy’s premiership in the wake of a massive bribery scandal that had sent the pre-existing political order into turmoil. Berlusconi had made a name for himself first as a wealthy real estate magnate in the Milan area in the 1960s before becoming a media mogul more than a decade later with the creation of Mediaset, which includes three of Italy’s main privately owned national television channels.

Although Berlusconi’s first term as prime minister only lasted a year, he developed a taste for a life in politics. In 2001 he returned to power, where he remained until narrowly losing his seat in 2006 to centre-left politician Romano Prodi.

For the next two years, Berlusconi sat on the sidelines as he watched Prodi lose support while his coalition government lurched from one political crisis to the next. In 2008 Prodi announced his resignation, clearing the way for Berlusconi to resume his position as Italy’s prime minister with a revamped centre-right coalition, the People of Freedom (PDL) party.

The next three years of Berlusconi’s career would be wrought with scandal and legal troubles. In 2009 Berlusconi made headlines after allegations of relationships he had with young women ended with his second wife, Veronica Lario, filing for divorce after 20 years of marriage.

Fall from grace

One year later, Berlusconi’s government looked again to be on shaky ground after a rift with a long-standing ally, Gianfranco Fini, fractured the PDL party – which the two men had created together in 2008 – leaving it without a secure majority in parliament. The political divide led to a confidence vote, which Berlusconi won after receiving the backing of a number of deputies who had initially split from his party during the feud.

Berlusconi faces trial over charges he paid to have sex with Karima El Mahroug, also known as "Ruby", when she was only 17.
Signs that Berlusconi’s grip on power was slipping were compounded by mounting scandals. He currently faces a string of court cases, including charges of tax evasion in connection with his Mediaset media empire, accusations of paying for sex with a minor and graft.

Legal woes and scandal were not the only things undermining Berlusconi’s popularity. As the eurozone struggled to stave off a deepening financial crisis, Italy’s economy had all but ground to a halt. The prime minister’s party took a major blow in local elections held in May 2011, which were largely seen as a referendum on his leadership.

In a bid to meet the European Central Bank's demands for action on stabilising Italy’s faltering economy, Berlusconi attempted to impose a series of unpopular austerity measures over the summer. Despite these efforts, ratings agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded its rating in September by one notch to A from A+ over the country’s weakening economic growth outlook and inflated levels of government debt.

The erstwhile prime minister has become the latest political casualty as the eurozone continues to take a turn for the worse. He follows in the steps of Greece's former premier, George Papandreou, who also resigned this week after his country lost faith in his ability to tackle the nation's financial woes.

Date created : 2011-11-08

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