Berlusconi Still in Italy's Spotlight

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 8, 2007; 12:23 PM

ROME -- The past 10 months have been rough for Silvio Berlusconi: He lost power in a contested election, fainted at a political rally, underwent heart surgery and was rebuked very publicly by his wife for flirting with other women.

Yet, despite the setbacks, the former premier remains at the center of the political stage _ still captivating Italians with his charisma, if not his policies.

Last week, his wife wrote to an Italian newspaper to demand a public apology from her husband for his flirtatious behavior. Within hours, Berlusconi responded with a love letter that _ in the words of an Italian commentator _ "will be used in years to come by men from the left and the right as a blueprint for conjugal repentance."

A day later, emboldened by a defeat of the ruling coalition in a parliament vote, Berlusconi called for Premier Romano Prodi's resignation.

"There's nothing we can do about it," said Sergio Romano, a leading Italian analyst. "Berlusconi will always be a seducer."

Berlusconi's return to the public spotlight comes at a time of difficulty for Prodi's government, which has been plagued by a rift between radical leftists and reform-oriented moderates.

Contentious issues _ most recently, Italy's commitment in Afghanistan and the government's approval of a plan to expand a U.S. base in Vicenza _ have exposed the friction, and a slim majority in the Senate forces Prodi to seek compromise with all members of his coalition.

"A government that doesn't have a majority to support half of its policies _ the foreign policy _ should realize it would be good for Italy if they resigned," said Berlusconi, who leads the conservative opposition.

However, he added that "the left will never accept going to the polls because they would certainly be defeated."

According to Berlusconi, opinion polls commissioned by his Forza Italia party show that the conservative coalition is some 15 percentage points ahead of the ruling center-left. As to his own popularity rating, he says it is nearly 30 percentage points higher than Prodi's.

Berlusconi's polls are often criticized as unreliable and self-serving. But independent polls have found dissatisfaction with Prodi's government.

A significant test will take place this spring when millions of Italians vote in local elections. It will the first substantial balloting since the April general election that ousted Berlusconi after five years in power.

Berlusconi's popularity, most analysts agree, has more to do with his charisma than his policies. Many Italians see him as one of them _ even though he is a billionaire media baron, Italy's richest man.

Italians loved the public spat with his wife, Veronica Lario, that turned Berlusconi's marriage into a kind of real-life soap opera. The squabble occupied pages in domestic newspapers, forced TV executives to reschedule their evening talks shows and gave rise to all sorts of commentary: playful, serious and sociological.

"Dear Veronica, here's my apology," Berlusconi wrote. "Forgive me, I beg you. And take this public show of my private pride giving in to your fury as an act of love. One of many."

By most accounts, Berlusconi was able to turn what might have been a public embarrassment into a success. Even Prodi's spokesman, Silvio Sircana, gave Berlusconi a perfect 10 in communication skills.

Italian reports said the couple spent a quiet evening at their villa in Milan after Berlusconi's apology. Lario, in an interview with Corriere della Sera on Wednesday, said her gesture made her feel "at peace with myself."

"Mutual respect is a fundamental thing, especially at our age," she told the Milan daily.

Some analysts say that in recent months, Berlusconi's showmanship and media savvy have masked the lack of a clear political agenda on several key issues, from reform of the electoral law to his own succession at the helm of the conservative bloc.

A series of health woes fueled speculation about the political future of a man who is 70 and in 13 years has been the conservative candidate for premier four consecutive times _ he won twice and lost twice.

Berlusconi seems to have recovered well on nearly all fronts.

A week after he was hospitalized for fainting during a speech to party supporters in Tuscany, Berlusconi showed up at an anti-government rally in Rome.

Then, in December, he went to the United States to have a heart pacemaker implanted. Weeks later, he appeared on the cover of gossip magazine Chi holding his two grandchildren.

"Super Grandpa!" read the banner headline.

© 2007 The Associated Press