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Silvio Berlusconi

He is 74. He could be your grandfather but he is the oldest prime minister in Europe. And he owns AC Milan. Silvio Berlusconi is definitely cooler than you, in so many ways.

He has tanned skin, dark brown hair, which is slightly balding at the front but still gives a youthful impression. When he flashes you a smile, a perfect row of white, sparkling teeth light up a still rather handsome face. He dates the girls you would never be able to date, either because you're too poor, too ugly, or not macho enough. He wins over you, and you know it.

According to himself Berlusconi is the "best political leader in Europe and the world" and many Italians have, since his first acquisition of power in 1993, aspired to be like the money-making, perma-tanned politician and businessman.

Starting out as a successful business tycoon he has with his political position secured an unrivalled influence in Italian society. He has also become the second-longest serving PM in Italy.

So why did The Economist headline already in April 2001 that they saw Berlusconi as "unfit" to lead Italy, and that "the election of Berlusconi as Prime Minister would mark a dark day for
Italian democracy and rule of law"?

The international reactions to Berlusconi's rule stand in stark contrast to the success he has enjoyed at home. European politicians, experts, pundits and civil society have taken turns to accuse Berlusconi of heavily unethical behaviour (so did E&M in an earlier Flop European). Berlusconi is known in many countries as a leader with appalling business ethics and discriminating and demeaning behaviour towards women, gays and immigrants. In addition, economic performance under Berlusconi has also not been what was promised the Italian people.

The Italian economy, the Eurozone's third largest, is too large to be bailed out like Ireland or Greece. Therefore the need for steady political management is urgent.

Italy's economy has struggled for years with slow growth, especially in the south where mafia structures still have a strong grip on everyday affairs. Add this to an enormous debt burden, currently around 116% of GDP, and Der Spiegel has named Italy as 'one of five threats' to the Eurozone. The country is recovering slowly from the 2008 crisis, with the lowest point being a 5% contraction of the economy in 2009. It thus looks like the country will be facing an unmanageable mountain of debt if growth does not pick up soon.

Europe_gdp_growth_new
Source: Eurostat
The Italian economy is growing slowly.

The Italian economy, the Eurozone's third largest, is too large to be bailed out like Ireland or Greece. Therefore the need for steady political management is urgent. Still, Berlusconi consistently hesitates to address such issues, turning his attention instead to judicial obstacles to his business empire, for example. Investors and financial experts question whether the Prime Minister's government is too weak to carry through the necessary austerity reforms to recover from the economic downturn.

For years, Berlusconi has somehow escaped conviction for allegations ranging from corruption and mafia affiliation to the promotion of prostitution. Despite more than one of his close colleagues being convicted in related matters, the PM self-confidently dismisses all charges: he spurned official investigations into serious allegations that he was encouraging prostitution by stating that the investigators should have mental health checks. His strategy seems obvious: dodging real confrontation by dismissing all accusations and not answering his opponents.

Berlusconi has seen failing results to his populist promises and seems to lack economically viable policies, but he has still been rewarded for his 'fun politics' in elections. This is perhaps helped by effectively controlling 80 to 90% of Italian TV through government and private ownership.

He wins votes, and gains enemies, by his outspokenness. The Berlusconi Book of Quotes infamously includes: "right-wing women are more attractive than left-wing women," and more recently "it's better to be attracted to pretty women than to be gay".

moiIngvild

Skarpeid

Ingvild is 23 and lives between Norway and Coventry in England, where she studies Economics and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Warwick. But let's face it, instead of studying, Ingvild is normally writing for E&M, drinking coffee or dreaming of far-away places instead. She's been involved in E&M since issue #5!

The PM's view of women seems to reflect his public attitude to policy: it is all just a joke, and people shouldn't take it so seriously. Many have thought Berlusconi would always get away with his nonchalant playboy behaviour. Ironically though it seems that this is what could eventually bring him down, and not his (lack of) policies.

The newest chapter in the Berlusconi saga takes the focus away from Berlusconi's politics yet again. This autumn edition's spicy content seems for once to be too much to swallow for the Italians, and the season's scandal is called 'Bunga Bunga'. (Without going into too much detail, Bunga Bunga is named after a innovative sex game the Prime Minister allegedly plays in his villa with plenty of young girls present. The PM apparently learned of the game from his pal, Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi.) In the centre of attention is once again a minor, a 17-year old dancer who, despite denying having had a relationship with the PM, has been present at such Bunga-parties. The accumulation of stories about young girls, nude parties and recklessness finally seems to have caused a serious reaction from the Catholic Church, and the tone of the Italian media is sharper than ever.

Whether he is a Top or Flop of the decade certainly lies in the eye of the beholder, but for a growing majority in Italy and internationally the message is clear: Silvio, it's time to go.

 

Cover illustration: Laura Hempel

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