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Fading Berlusconi has one more shot at the limelight


For decades, Silvio Berlusconi has dominated almost every aspect of Italian public and private life. Now 76, is Italy's great seducer struggling to work the charm?


, reporting from Milan, Italy

“Berlusconi is a great man and nobody respects women like he does!” thundered pensioner Laura Fabbris, 68, as she stormed out of the Casa della Stampa (or Home of the Press) in snow-capped Milan.

With just 24 hours to go before the end of Italy's election campaign, Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party decided to roll out its programme for women on Thursday.

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Click to enlarge image It's never too late to unveil a party programme. Here, members of Berlusconi's PDL party present their platform for women, dubbed "I'm a woman, not a doll". © Ben Dodman

Hastily named “We are women, not dolls” - in response to the claim made earlier this week by the left-wing candidate for prime minister, Pier Luigi Bersani, that Berlusconi's female candidates were little more than “bambole” (or dolls) – the programme was presented by former ministers Daniela Santanchè and Mariastella Gelmini.

The latter immediately set the tone by stressing the “great evil that feminism has done to women” and drawing the enthusiastic applause of an audience dominated by female sympathisers of the PDL, most of them in their sixties.

But there were jeers for journalists who dared question Berlusconi's respect for women.

Among the more vociferous, Fabbris looked surprised when FRANCE 24 asked her what the “Cavaliere” had done for women. “Good lord,” she gasped after a moment of thought. “He kept the left out of power!”

Anti-communism and the American Dream

Italy's current electoral law is so complex and cumbersome it has been dubbed "porcellum", or pigsty, by the person who wrote it. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, has 630 seats, while the Senate has 315 (plus four senators appointed for life). All elected seats are up for grabs on February 24-5. Seats in both chambers are allocated on a proportional basis, with a variety of thresholds designed to encourage parties to form coalitions. Whichever coalition comes first in the national vote is awarded a "majority prize" in the Chamber of Deputies, guaranteeing it has at least 340 of the 630 seats. "Majority prizes" also apply in the Senate, but on a regional basis, making it more difficult for any one coalition to secure a majority of seats in both chambers.

In a staunchly Catholic country where women have traditionally acted as the main bridge between family and Church, the left has long had a troubled relationship with the female vote.

As the late singer Giorgio Gaber famously put it, “some people were communists because so were their fathers, uncles, granddads... but mother, never!”

The Church lost its hold on the female vote decades ago, largely because of its opposition to abortion, divorce and contraception.

But then came Silvio Berlusconi, with his intoxicating mix of anti-communism and American-style consumerism, fed to millions of Italian households through his many television channels and near-monopoly on the advertising industry.

In 1992, two years before Berlusconi entered politics, a journalist asked the media tycoon whether he would consider running for mayor in his hometown of Milan.

His answer was a telling forecast of the years to come.

“Do you know that every day I receive 400 letters from housewives thanking me for freeing them from their daily boredom with my television programmes?,” Berlusconi replied. “If I entered politics with this electoral base I wouldn't go for mayor: I'd build a party like Reagan's, win the elections and become prime minister.”

'A complete disregard of women'

“To this day the bedrock of Berlusconi's support is made up of the housewives of southern Italy who are glued to his TV programmes all day long,” said Francesca Panzarin, founder of the, a website that campaigns for greater gender equality in politics and the workplace.

A former manager at one of Italy's leading publishers, Panzarin lost her job three years ago after going on maternity leave. “All the other board members were men over the age of 50; they stayed on,” she recalls.

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Click to enlarge image Francesca Panzarin, 40, says Berlusconi's antics have led to a "complete disregard for women". © Ben Dodman

Now self-employed, she has launched a number of initiatives to help women combine work and family life, which for many Italian women is still synonymous with round-the-clock cooking, shopping and mothering.

At 40, she is hoping to transform these initiatives into policies when she runs for office in regional elections on Sunday, as part of the centre-left Citizen List of Umberto Ambrosoli.

That would mean defeating Silvio Berlusconi's PDL and his Northern League allies, who have ruled Lombardy for 17 years.

“Two decades of Berlusconismo have led to a complete disregard for women's rights and their image,” she said, citing the scantily-clad ladies showcased on Berlusconi's channels and his use of showgirls – some of whom are suspected of being his lovers – to fill parliamentary seats and cabinet positions.

Bunga bunga no more

The Cavaliere's antics were on show again this week after a video of him teasing a young lady with sexually explicit language (such as asking her how many times she could “come” and at what intervals) went viral, sparking outrage among his opponents and on the web.

Panzarin says she draws comfort from what she sees as a growing rebellion against the vision of women offered by Berlusconi and his channels. In February 2011, one million people, most of them female, rallied in cities across the country in protest at his treatment of women.

Support for the media mogul has plummeted in recent years, eroded by the repeated corruption scandals and lurid accounts of the “bunga bunga” orgies allegedly organised at his Arcore residence outside Milan.

At 76, the man who began is career as a crooner on cruise ships is finally looking his age.

“His physique has long been a key component of his communication strategy; but even that has deteriorated, despite his best efforts,” said Paolo Bellucci, a professor of contemporary politics at the University of Siena.

Support for his party has dropped from 37 percent in 2008, the year of his last electoral triumph, to around 20 percent today.

Knowing Italians' weak spots

While Berlusconi's main centre-left rival, Pier Luigi Bersani, is favoured to win the February 24-25 general election, the three-time former prime minister is still a formidable campaigner.

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Click to enlarge image The entrance to Berlusconi's model suburban town, Milano 2. © Ben Dodman

“Within days of entering the race, he had placed the campaign firmly on his own turf by promising to scrap a reviled property tax and reimburse Italians for the amount paid last year,” said Bellucci.

Never mind the fact that the state is in no position to afford such a move; as the locals put it, Berlusconi speaks “alla pancia” (or to the stomach) of Italians. “He knows their weak spots, their fear of discipline, of the state, of losing their homes, of being caught with their hands in the till,” said Maurizio Cotta, a fellow professor of politics at the University of Siena.

When the head of the Lombard aerospace giant Finmeccanica was arrested last week for bribing Indian officials to secure a giant helicopter contract, Berlusconi alone of all politicians blamed the magistrates for hurting Italian jobs. “Sometimes you simply cannot sell anything without a bribe,” he remarked.

The model city

But in a country where up to a quarter of the economy is swallowed by the black market, cultivating lawlessness does not always translate into greater support.

On the eastern fringes of the Lombard capital lies Milano 2, a self-contained model city built in the 1970s by Berlusconi's construction company, Edilnord.

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Click to enlarge image Milano 2 is where the Cavaliere built his fortune - same say with the generous help of the Sicilian mafia. © Ben Dodman

With its artificial lake, green spaces, cycle lanes and elevated walkways, Milano 2 was designed as the Italian version of American suburbia.

“I'm in favour of all things American before even knowing what they are,” Berlusconi once told Britain's Times newspaper.

“Here we have our own pharmacy, supermarket, bank and post office; and there's virtually no crime,” said the owner of Milano 2's Tosini pasticceria, who did not wish to be named because “we all know each other round here”.

In Berlusconi's model city, as in its successor Milano 3, which also has a shopping mall, there is no need to leave the neighbourhood. Its residents only have to take a few steps to reach a swimming pool, tennis court, church or library; and , of course, they have plenty of time to watch television.

Milano 2 is where the Cavaliere built his media empire, Mediaset, launching Italy's first private channels with the help of his politician friends, chief of whom was the powerful Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, a former prime minister whose name is now synonymous with corrupt politics.

Silvio vs the judges

The leafy suburb is also where Berlusconi's own four-decade-long battle with the judiciary began.

The first investigations into Edilnord's shady funding began in 1979 but were soon dropped. It later emerged that the investigators had been given senior positions in Berlusconi's Fininvest holding.

In the following years, several former mafia bosses were quoted as saying that Edilnord had received generous funding from criminal organisations based in Sicily, via Berlusconi's close friend Marcello Dell'Utri, who has since been convicted of association with the mafia in a separate case (but is still running in Berlusconi's centre-right coalition this year).

Berlusconi himself went on to face dozens of trials on a variety of charges, but was never definitively convicted – either because the statute of limitations had expired after multiple appeals, or because his government had changed the law, for instance decriminalising the practise of false accounting.

But his run of luck came to an end last October when he was sentenced to four years in jail for tax fraud, whereupon he immediately lodged an appeal.

“His return to politics two months after the conviction is hardly a coincidence,” said the University of Siena's Paolo Bellucci. “Whether he wins the election or not, having enough supporters in parliament can ensure he is protected from the judges.”

A country in ruins

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Click to enlarge image The owner of the pasticceria Tosini in Milano 2 says "Berlusconi and his allies have ruined this country". © Ben Dodman

Berlusconi is not the only one in need of protection. In Lombardy, Italy's wealthiest and most populous region and the one that is likely to determine the outcome of the election, his Northern League allies have been crippled by an embezzlement scandal that has dug a gaping 50-million-euro hole in the region's healthcare budget.

At the pasticceria in Milano 2, the owner says she is no longer amused by Berlusconi's run-ins with the law.

“The local hospital has virtually shut down because of the corruption scandal,” she said. “Berlusconi and his allies have ruined this country.”

Italy's great seducer promised his fellow countrymen they could follow his path to success. But with his dream in tatters impoverished Italians have been left to foot the bill.

“Italians love a success story,” said George Banciu, a Romanian cab driver, upon leaving Milano 2, “Their problem is that they can't always tell the difference between a successful businessman and a cheat.”

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