Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul who has dominated Italian politics for more than two decades, has stepped back into the ring at the age of 81, defying those who dared to believe he had thrown in the towel.
Despite sex scandals, serial gaffes and legal woes, the flamboyant tycoon has made an astonishing return from political oblivion to head his centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, which as part of a right-wing coalition is leading the race for Sunday’s vote, according to opinion polls.
“Berlusconi has 12 or 13 lives, he’s like a cat squared,” said former premier Matteo Renzi, who is himself trying to win back the top spot on Sunday.
Although barred from public office owing to a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi is hoping to position himself as kingmaker in the next government.
He has put forward his loyal former protege, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, as his prime ministerial nominee if he wins the vote.
While Berlusconi has largely avoided the big campaign rallies and only appeared once with his coalition allies in the run-up to the vote, he is a constant figure on television, radio and in newspapers, a number of which he owns through his Fininvest empire.
The one-time cruise ship crooner who has served as prime minister three times and once owned AC Milan football club, has had a tumultuous love affair with Italian politics, clinching his first election victory in 1994.
With his oiled-back hair and winning smile, he has ruled Italy for more than nine years in total.
He became renowned around the world for his buffoonish gaffes and a colourful private life epitomised by his notorious “bunga bunga” sex parties.
Today his smile is noticeably a little frozen, and the facelifts and make-up — laid on “as thick as the carpet,” according to an editorial from La Repubblica newspaper — have left the veteran leader somewhat transformed.
But his sense of humour is still intact.
“I’m like a good wine, with age, I only improve, now I’m perfect,” he tweeted recently.
– Football glory –
Berlusconi was born in 1936 in Milan to a bank employee father and a housewife mother who always staunchly defended her son’s virtues.
The young Berlusconi was a born entertainer.
A huge fan of Nat King Cole, he played double bass and entertained club audiences with jokes during breaks from studying law.
He worked briefly as a cruise-ship singer before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector and then expanding to set up three national television channels and buy Italian football club AC Milan, which he went on to sell in 2017.
Berlusconi’s political success has been linked to his football glory. But it is also closely entwined with the power of his broadcasting and publishing empire.
His first stint as prime minister lasted from 1994-1996. In 2001, he was elected again after a campaign which included sending a book boasting of his achievements to 15 million Italian homes.
He remained in power until 2006 — the longest premiership in the history of post-war Italy — and as a divided left floundered, he was voted back in for a third time in 2008.
– In crosshairs of the law –
But his premiership ended in 2011 in a blaze of sex scandals and fears Italy was on the brink of a Greek-style financial implosion.
The twice-divorced Berlusconi was forced out of parliament in 2013 after his conviction for corporate tax fraud was upheld by Italy’s highest court.
His influence waned quickly after that.
In 2013 he was also sentenced to seven years for paying for sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute Karima El-Mahroug, known as “Ruby the Heart Stealer”, and for abusing his powers to get her off theft charges, pretending she was the niece of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The Ruby conviction was eventually overturned by an appeal court. Not entirely off the hook though, Berlusconi now faces trial over allegations he bought Ruby and other women’s silence with more than 10 million euros worth of gifts including houses and holidays.
– Obama gaffe –
The former leader has gained notoriety for his off-colour jokes and diplomatic gaffes, in 2013 likening German politician Martin Schulz to a Nazi, and describing US President Barack Obama as “suntanned”.
In a wiretap conversation leaked to the press, he also called German Chancellor Angela Merkel “an unfuckable lard-arse”.
The now ageing politician has also grappled with health issues in recent years, undergoing open heart surgery in 2016.
When asked about his eventual successor though, he responded: “It’s not easy to find a genius, but as I’ll live to be 120, I will find one.”