It's hard to believe, but Silvio Berlusconi's reign as Italian prime minister appears to be over. The 75-year-old media mogul -- assailed by a stagnant economy, ballooning debt, and eroding political support -- won a budget vote on Tuesday but failed to garner the support of a majority in Italy's lower house of parliament. And now several news outlets are reporting that Berlusconi, after meeting with Italian Giorgio Napolitano, has agreed to resign and make way for early elections so long as parliament passes an austerity package that will likely be voted on this month.
The news is particularly striking because the Italian leader has earned a reputation as one of the world's wiliest political survivors. Incredibly, he's survived over 50 confidence votes since assuming power for a third time in 2008, and has improbably rebounded from all manner of sex scandals and legal dramas. Curiously enough, it turned out to be the economy -- not the corruption charges or the sex scandals -- that brought down the billionaire businessman who founded his political party around free-market principles. Here's a look at Berlusconi's rise and fall and rise and fall and ... well, you get the picture.
Above, Berlusconi attends a press conference at the G-20 Summit in Cannes, France, last week.
Berlusconi was elected to parliament and appointed prime minister in March 1994, only a few months after he decided to enter politics and form his own political party, Forza Italia. But the coalition government he cobbled together -- which included the conservative parties Alleanza Nazionale and Lega Nord -- imploded only seven months later when Lega Nord leader Umberto Bossi (the same politician who's calling for Berlusconi to resign this week) deserted the prime minister, who had just been indicted by a Milan court for bribing Italian tax authorities.
"It's not that investors have anything against Berlusconi personally -- it's just that his three-party coalition is seen to have reneged on its promises and that as long as he is prime minister investors will have no confidence in Italy," an Italian market analyst explained to AFX News ahead of the Italian premier's resignation. BNP Paribas ran an analysis with the headline, "The End of the Berlusconi Era?" But there were signs that Berlusconi's political career still had life in it. A poll released in late December indicated that Berlusconi was still Italians' top choice to lead the next government.
Above, Berlusconi gives a speech in parliament in December 1994 before tendering his resignation.
Berlusconi's center-right coalition lost to a center-left alliance led by Romano Prodi during general elections in April as media reports questioned the staying power of the media tycoon and his Forza Italia party. Agence France Presse called Berlusconi "Italy's political shooting star of the 1990s" and analysts concluded that Italian politics had lurched decisively to the left. While Berlusconi "slid into the Prime Minister's chair" in 1994 by "dazzling voters with his slick suits and seamless patter," Australia's The Age explained, he had since been "soiled by corruption charges and a backlog of acrimony that even his champion soccer club, AC Milan, cannot dispel."
Above, Berlusconi holds a press conference in July 1998 after a Milan court convicted him of illegal party financing and sentenced him to over two years in prison. Berlusconi was later cleared by an appeals court after the statute of limitations on the accusations expired.
Berlusconi returned as prime minister after his center-right coalition won elections -- but he faced a string of corruption cases involving embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting, and attempting to bribe judges. His troubles sparked media criticism, angry demonstrations, and even calls from former Italian president Francesco Cossiga for Berlusconi to resign if convicted. Yet somehow, Berlusconi managed to dodge all these legal bullets through a mixture of acquittals, appeals, statute of limitations lapses, and government tweaks to the law. He ultimately presided over the longest-serving Italian government since World War II.
This is when Berlusconi's mystique as a phoenix-like politician began to take shape. The New York Times marveled in 2002 that Berlusconi "seems practically impervious to political damage." But the calls for his resignation continued. In 2004, when Italy's economy minister resigned, an opposition leader proclaimed the "end of the Berlusconi era." Berlusconi would eventually have to face a political defeat, but his tenure was far from over.
Above, leftist demonstrators attend an anti-Berlusconi rally in Rome in March 2002.
Italy's ruling coalition collapsed in April after suffering a stinging defeat in regional polls as the economy sputtered. Analysts framed the results as a referendum on the embattled premier, and even Berlusconi's coalition allies lashed out at him. "This drop in popularity for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi heralds a storm that it would be suicidal to underestimate," a commentary in Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore declared, per a BBC translation. "Berlusconi must come up with a comeback ploy pretty soon if he wants to avoid going under."
In fact, Berlusconi did just that. He resigned, only to reshuffle his cabinet, revamp his coalition's platform, and form a new government just days later. Berlusconi told the Italian news agency ANSA that he would consider stepping down as prime minister if he was able to fuse his center-right coalition into a single, stable party. "It's not my ambition to be irreplaceable," he explained. (Fast forward to 2011, when the embattled Berlusconi argued there was "no one else capable" of leading Italy.)
Above, Berlusconi participates in the swearing-in ceremony of Italy's new government in April 2005 with then-Italian deputy premier Giulio Tremonti (on left) and then-Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
2006-2008: Down for the count?
Berlusconi narrowly lost another election to Romano Prodi and a subsequent legal challenge of the results. But analysts were too schooled in Berlusconi's history to write his political obituary. "Is the Berlusconi era over?" the New York Times asked. Given that Berlusconi would want to protect his business empire, avoid legal trouble, prepare for a comeback, and feed his ego, the paper concluded, the answer is "almost certainly not."
Indeed, the article proved prescient. The Teflon Don launched a new center-right coalition in 2007 and returned to power for a third time in 2008 after a no-confidence vote forced Prodi's government to resign (the legislature soon passed a bill granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while he remained in office).
The picture above shows the front pages of Italian newspapers a day after the April 2006 elections.
2009: Public scandal and crisis
This year marked a low point for Berlusconi. His wife, Veronica Lario, announced that she would be filing for divorce and declared that the Italian prime minister "consorts with minors" after he attended the 18th birthday party of underwear model Noemi Letizia. Testimonials and photos fueled further allegations that Berlusconi invited young girls and prostitutes to his raucous parties and compensated them with cash, gifts, and even government positions. Two corruption cases reopened against Berlusconi when Italy's Constitutional Court overturned his immunity from prosecution while in office, prompting the prime minister to complain that he was the most persecuted person "in the entire history of the world." To literally add insult to injury, Berlusconi was hit in the face at a rally in Milan by a man wielding a model of the city's cathedral, and was confronted with mass rallies in Rome demanding his resignation.
As 2009 drew to a close, the Economist observed that Berlusconi was besieged from all sides and had reached a "crisis point." But, the magazine concluded, "he has a joker up his sleeve."
Above, Berlusconi appears on the television program Porta a Porta in May 2009 to discuss his wife's decision to file for divorce.
Berlusconi was hit with an investigation into his bacchanalian "bunga-bunga" parties and his relationship with a teenage Moroccan nightclub dancer named Karima el-Mahroug. He went on trial for paying for sex with an underage girl and abusing his power and, separately, for tax fraud. What's more, Berlusconi began to face a marathon of confidence votes on austerity measures designed to keep Italy from falling victim to the European debt crisis. All these problems prompted former ally Gianfranco Fini to split with Berlusconi and call for his resignation, and for other high-profile members of Berlusconi's coalition to follow suit. The BBC's Duncan Kennedy speculated at the end of 2010 that the Lario divorce might have marked the beginning of the end for Berlusconi -- the point at which "historians will conclude that the rot set in."
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