AT a post-election press conference, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was subdued. He gave an explanation for the expression `coglione' (roughly translated as idiot) he had used to describe those who did not vote for him. He said he had never intended to offend anybody but only meant that people like him who had created an enterprise by hard work would not be stupid enough to vote for those on the Left who were bent on destroying such enterprises through taxes.
The election results handed him a defeat, albeit a narrow one. The country is divided down the middle. Of the nearly 40-million-strong electorate, a little less than half voted for Berlusconi's Freedom House (Casa della Liberta) alliance, which includes the neo-fascist Alleanza Nazionale and the Northern League, which at one time advocated the separation of the north. The difference in the percentage of votes separating the Freedom House from the winning Centre-Left coalition is minuscule.
Even this result is in some ways a gift of Berlusconi to himself, because it is the result of a proportional electoral system introduced recently in place of the earlier, mainly first-past-the-post, one. Under the new system seats are divided among the parties in proportion to the votes polled by them and the largest party gets extra seats. The change of system was seen as Berlusconi's attempt to make a clear verdict difficult to obtain.
This is but one example of the way in which Berlusconi has functioned during his tenure in office. His propensity to push through legislation in his favour has earned him the epithet of an `anomaly' in the context of European democracies. It concerns his attempts to strengthen his powers and touches, above all, a conflict of interests. He is a giant entrepreneur, Italy's richest man, and owns a media empire.
In concrete terms this conflict of interests has been in evidence in a series of legislation passed since he came to power in 2001. One of these decriminalised false accounting, another grants immunity from prosecution to the five most important offices of state, a third reduced the period beyond which cases would lapse, and another, and the most notable one, the Gasparri law on regulating the electronic media, raised the limit on the number of television stations that can be owned by a single business house.
Berlusconi's Mediaset controls three national television channels. Berlusconi appeared recently as the 25th in the list of the richest persons in the world. However, the situation was not so rosy more than a decade ago when he was at the threshold of his political career. According to the Italian bank Mediobanca's annual report on large companies, Berlusconi's group of holdings had in 1992 a debt of approximately $4 billion though its fixed capital amounted to only a seventh of this. There was the threat of bankruptcy, complicated by the fact that television advertising was going through a slump and banks were recalling their credit. Berlusconi entered politics soon after, in the beginning of 1994.
He has on numerous occasions declared that he has been the object of judicial persecution since he entered politics. Already in 1992-93, his holding company Fininvest was the object of the Clean Hands investigations into corruption nationwide, which led to the dissolution of the old parties and the collapse of the political system of the First Republic.
However, Berlusconi's strong criticism of the judiciary has been a regular feature of his prime ministerial tenure, provoked by the many cases against him.
At one point he had more than 20 cases pending, and he has often attacked Judges as being communist sympathisers.
Berlusconi was born in 1936 in Milan, the industrial and commercial powerhouse of Italy. The eldest of three sons of an upper middle class family, he went on to obtain a degree in law with distinction. He was enterprising quite early on, working part-time which included being a singer-entertainer in a cruiser on the Mediterranean.
His first venture was in the construction business and he started a company in partnership in 1961. He embarked on a series of land and building acquisitions, a notable purchase in 1969 being an area of over 70,000 square metres known as Milano 2, which was later developed into a satellite city. The success of his construction business gained him presidential recognition for entrepreneurship in 1977 - in the form of Cavaliere del Lavoro, a knighthood and a title with which he is often referred to.
In the mid-1970s, Berlusconi founded the financial company Fininvest, which became the instrument of his expansion into the sphere of communications and media. He started TeleMilano, a cable television network in the Milano 2 area. In this he was aided by a court judgment that allowed local broadcasters to put out transmissions. In the space of two years, TeleMilano became Canale 5, a network absorbing other broadcasters. It witnessed phenomenal growth.
In 1982, Fininvest bought the channel Italia 1 from the publisher Edilio Rusconi. Thereafter, Rete 4 was acquired from the Mondadori publishing group. With these three channels, Fininvest became the main rival of RAI, the national broadcaster which had until then enjoyed a monopoly. In the field of books and periodicals too, Berlusconi is the biggest publisher in Italy in his capacity as the major shareholder of the two largest publishing houses, Mondadori and Einaudi. He also has interests in cinema distribution through control of the group Medusa Cinema.
Fininvest has a strong presence in the insurance and financial sectors. Among the various acquisitions, perhaps the favourite with Berlusconi is his ownership of the premier football club AC Milan, which he acquired in 1986.
According to The Economist, it is this vast empire coupled with his role as the head of government that gives Berlusconi effective control of around 90 per cent of television broadcasting in Italy. This situation is at the root of the conflict of interests arising from his role as Prime Minister.
A survey on the freedom of the press conducted by the American foundation Freedom House in 2004 downgraded Italy in the scale of freedom of expression from `free' to `partially free', given the possibilities of Berlusconi being able to influence the national broadcaster in his capacity as the head of government.
Berlusconi's entry into politics with the formation of Forza Italia gave a new dimension to politics. He proposed himself as an alternative to the old style of politics, an entrepreneur in the service of politics. His approach has been to transform governance towards a managerial mode, of what has been described as `Enterprise Italy'.
His appeal, projected and marketed successfully through the media, found an echo among many Italians desirous of efficiency, change and better conditions. Italy's current economic difficulties have removed some of the shine off this image that is reflected in the drop in votes for the ruling coalition.Biswajit Chowdhury