Rome: Sex scandals, political infighting and the recession have sabotaged Silvio Berlusconi’s third stint as Italy’s prime minister just two and a half years after a landslide election victory gave him his strongest ever mandate.
Once boasting total dominance of Italian politics, Berlusconi has been weakened by the defection of a key ally, a devastating denunciation of his sex life by his estranged wife, and a string of kiss-and-tell stories from young women.
When Berlusconi swept to power in 2008 he aimed to show he had completed the transition from showy media tycoon to elder statesman and could finally pass long-overdue reforms of Italy’s sluggish economy.
Those hopes have crumbled and the perma-tanned conservative leader now faces a no-confidence motion in parliament that could destroy his government and lead to early elections.
The road to the vote began in July when he expelled lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, who had co-founded his People of Freedom (PDL) party. Fini accused Berlusconi of running the PDL like a business, with no room for internal debate.
The defection robbed Berlusconi of a safe parliamentary majority and turned Fini into a dangerous enemy, accelerating a decline in the premier’s ratings. At 74, Berlusconi is still a formidable political fighter and a weak centre-left opposition means he could bounce back yet again even if he loses the vote. But months of squabbling and lurid scandals have weakened his attraction for Italian voters.
It all started to go wrong a few months after his April 2008 triumph, when the euro zone’s third largest economy tumbled into recession earlier than most other developed nations.
Even so, the charismatic Berlusconi’s high approval ratings seemed impervious to the economic slump for a year.
Then his second wife wife Veronica Lario began the real rot, when in May 2009 she announced she was divorcing him because of his womanising, accusing him of being “a man who frequents minors”.
That opened the gates to a stream of reports about Berlusconi’s relations with young women, some of whom said they had been paid to sleep with him and attend parties at his house.
Italians are traditionally indulgent of politicians’ private lives, but Berlusconi’s popularity waned as revelations dominated the news agenda, clashing with his formal espousal of traditional family values.
In the last year the powerful Catholic Church has distanced itself, the economy has continued to struggle and sex scandals have been accompanied by corruption allegations against government ministers.
Berlusconi has been attacked by both business and unions for failing to deliver significant economic reforms, despite his promises of tax cuts and deregulation ever since the mid 1990s.
Though often derided abroad for his face lifts, hair transplants and diplomatic gaffes, Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics for the last 16 years, polarising public opinion between those who love and hate him.
As owner of Italy’s main private television channels and top-flight soccer team AC Milan, he has lived the Italian dream, with millions won over by his message of optimism and success.
Such support has weakened but he still commands a fiercely loyal following, particularly among middle class women, pensioners and the self-employed.
Internationally, his closest allies have been Russia’s Vladimir Putin and former US president George W. Bush, thankful for his support of the US ‘war on terrorism’.
According to cables made public by WikiLeaks, US diplomats expressed concern about the closeness of his ties with Putin.
More recently he has also struck up a controversial rapport with Libya’s mercurial leader Muammar Gaddafi.
After making a fortune in property and media, Berlusconi created his own party almost overnight in 1994 to fill the void created on the right by the destruction of the long-dominant Christian Democrats by a huge corruption scandal.
His media empire Mediaset has a near duopoly in television with state-run RAI over which, as premier, he has ultimate control, giving him a stranglehold on Italian media.
Berlusconi has managed to fend off a string of legal cases involving his business dealings and critics say he uses his position to avoid prosecution.
His politically incorrect sense of humour and diplomatic incidents have often grabbed more headlines than his policies.
He caused a minor diplomatic incident by suggesting he had seduced Finnish president Tarja Halonen to persuade her to let Italy host a new EU food safety agency; and he risked upsetting relations with the United States by calling newly-elected president Barack Obama “suntanned”.