Silvio Berlusconi, or Italy's arch seducer, as the British newspaper the Independent has called him, rose from vacuum cleaner salesman to media tycoon to political titan over the course of four decades, serving three separate terms as prime minister. He has also appeared in court more than 2,500 times by his own estimate, gone through two divorces, and been dogged by sex scandals involving "bunga bunga" parties full of scantily clad -- and allegedly underage -- women.
To his detractors, he is a walking catastrophe who has brought Italy nothing but humiliation. To his supporters, he is a charismatic center-right savior of the nation. But detractors and supporters alike both reckoned it was over for Berlusconi when he resigned as prime minister in 2011, after losing his parliamentary majority during and being forced out of office in the midst of an economic crisis. If this wasn't enough to finish him off, then surely his conviction for tax evasion in October 2012 was the final blow.
Now, only months later, Berlusconi is trailing his center-left opponent by just five to six percentage points in the country's general election on Feb. 24-25. If he wins, he will solidify his reputation as Italy's -- and, really, the world's -- ultimate political survivor. If he loses, we may very well be witnessing the last act in a larger-than-life career on the world stage -- chronicled in photos here.
Before Berlusconi was a world-famous politician, he was a renowned media mogul. In 1971, he started a local cable television channel called Telemilano, which grew into an empire. That empire, Mediaset, owns Italy's three largest private TV channels, but is just a portion of the former prime minister's business ventures. He controls the country's largest publishing house, a daily newspaper, and the soccer club AC Milan, all through his holdings company, Fininvest.
Above, Berlusconi leaves a press conference in Paris on Nov. 22, 1985, after making an announcement about his privately owned 5th TV channel.
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Berlusconi poses with his then-second wife Veronica Lario on Oct. 13, 1991 in France after receiving a man-of-the-year award from a television and entertainment company.
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Forza Italia means "Go Italy." It is the cheer of AC Milan fans -- Berlusconi grew up in Milan -- and it is what the Italian leader named his new political party in 1993. Just a year later, he aligned the party with right-wing groups and was elected to his first term as prime minister. The excitement was short-lived, though, as the upstart party confronted charges of corruption. Berlusconi lost the 1996 election to the left-wing politician Romano Prodi, who would become a long-time rival.
Above, Berlusconi celebrates the March 29, 1994, election results.
In 2000, Berlusconi was acquitted of a tax fraud charge levied against him, as the statue of limitations had run out. He then turned his attention to regaining his old post.
Above, Berlusconi is pictured giving a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Rome on June 1, 2000.
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Berlusconi, who spent the early part of his career crooning in nightclubs and on cruise ships, is pictured in the television screen grab above singing a song with the Italian musician Mariano Apicella during a private party at his summer residence on the island of Sardinia. Images of the performance circulated on Italian television in September 2003.
Berlusconi again joined forces with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League to recapture the office of prime minister in 2001. Shortly after the election, then-U.S. President George W. Bush visited Italy.
Above, Bush and Berlusconi toast each other during an official dinner at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 13, 2008.
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Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a well-documented friendship that began receiving media coverage during Berlusconi's second term. The two men have been known to pal around during pressers and while skiing and fishing.
Above, the two world leaders joke around at a press conference in Lipetsk, Russia on April 21, 2004.
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Despite his ongoing legal troubles, ranging from accusations of money laundering to judge bribery to mafia connections, Berlusconi's second government served from 2001 to 2006 -- the longest term for an Italian government since World War II. But in 2006 he lost an election to Romano Prodi, the left-wing leader who had defeated him 10 years earlier.
Above, newspapers depict the results of the 2006 election on April 10 of that year.
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In 2008, Berlusconi was elected prime minister once again at the head of yet another new political party, People of Freedom -- the result of a merger between Forza Italia and the Northern Alliance.
Above, Berlusconi charms Italy's then-Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini during a press conference in Rome on Oct. 22, 2008.
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Berlusconi whispers into the ear of then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy as German Chancellor Angela Merkel chuckles during a European summit to address the global financial crisis on Oct. 4, 2008, in Paris, France.
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Never one to turn down some fun, Berlusconi is pictured here at a G-20 summit on April 2, 2009, in London laughing with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama, with Chinese President Hu Jintao in the foreground.
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Berlusconi leaves a hospital in Milan on Dec. 17, 2009, with bandages covering his nose, cheek, and mouth after a protester hurled a souvenir statue of Milan's Duomo at the prime minister's face.
Berlusconi looks just as stumped as everyone else during an Oct. 26, 2011 European Council meeting in Brussels. Both he and former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, also pictured above, were grappling with their countries' skyrocketing bond rates at the time.
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Continuing their decades-long friendship, Berlusconi and then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pose with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a plane as they tour an airport in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Dec. 3, 2010.
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Much of Berlusconi's life is well-documented, but no aspect so much as his escapades with women of all kinds. His relationship with his second wife, who is the mother of three of his five children, began as an affair during his first marriage; the second marriage then succumbed to subsequent sex scandals.
Berlusconi has been accused of cavorting with minors at his "bunga bunga" parties, and he once told a member of his administration -- a former model -- that he would "gladly marry her" if he weren't married already. Most recently, he was charged with having sex with a 17-year-old exotic dancer.
Above, Berlusconi steps up to the stage following AC Milan's victory in the Berlusconi Trophy match on Aug. 21, 2011. Berlusconi's sex life may be controversial, but he's been quite successful as the leader of AC Milan. Since taking control of the organization in 1986, he has steered the club away from bankruptcy and led them to eight Italian league titles and five Champions League trophies.
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Berlusconi talks to TV presenter Bruno Vespa on May 5, 2009, with a picture of his former wife, Veronica Lario, in the background. Lario left her husband that year after he was seen at the birthday party of an 18-year-old aspiring model, and the two just reached a divorce settlement in 2012. Berlusconi will pay Lario 36 million euros per year, but he gets to keep their 60-million euro villa.
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Berlusconi presents incoming Prime Minister Mario Monti with a bell to mark the beginning of his tenure on Nov. 16, 2011 in Rome. Monti, who also appointed himself the finance minister but resigned last year, was tapped for his background in economics, in the hopes that he could save the country from the financial mess many believe Berlusconi created.
Last October, Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud associated with his Mediaset properties, sentenced to four years in prison, and told he would not be allowed to hold public office for three years.
Above, Berlusconi at a press conference on Feb. 1, 2012.
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Berlusconi claims that he has spent over 200 million euros on his legal expenses over the past 20 years. The former prime minister has defended himself in over 100 cases against charges ranging from bribery to false accounting since he was first elected in 1994, but his initial conviction came in 1990 on a false testimony charge in a case involving his membership in a right-wing Masonic lodge. Berlusconi has spent many hours in court -- but he has yet to spend a day in jail.
Above, a picture of Berlusconi behind super-imposed bars hangs on a building in Kharkiv, Ukraine on Nov. 28, 2012.
Improbably, Berlusconi hit the campaign trail once again this year. Here, he delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Rome on Jan. 25, 2013.
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Berlusconi poses for photographers during a televised campaign interview on Jan. 10, 2013.AFP/Getty Images