The Enduring Appeal of Silvio Berlusconi

Why Scandal and Tax Fraud Win

Silvio Berlusconi addresses a news conference in Brussels, Belgium. Courtesy Reuters

Italy is in the middle of another existential political crisis -- and somehow, against all expectations, Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, is at the center of it yet again. Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, forced last week the collapse of Italy’s left-right governing coalition if a legislative commission demands that Berlusconi relinquish his seat in parliament, thus forcing him to begin serving a one-year prison sentence for tax fraud. The latest bout of political instability hasn’t just triggered a standard round of name-calling among Italy’s political class; it has dramatically worsened the outlook of Italy’s already fragile economy, scaring off investors and bringing economic reform to a grinding halt. Milan’s stock exchange plunged 1.2 percent on Monday. Berlusconi seems more than willing to risk his country’s future to save his own neck, even if just temporarily.

Of course, that raises the question of why he is even in the position to do so. By any assessment, Berlusconi’s political career should have been over long ago. This is a man whose most distinguished contribution to his country during his decade of service as prime minister was the inventiveness of his sexual escapades. In the twenty years since Berlusconi was first selected prime minister, Italy has been the only country in Western Europe with a negative growth rate. He is openly despised -- not only by his ex-wife, who finally objected to his unabashed adultery, but also by most international leaders. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel was instrumental in the demise of his last cabinet.) When the courts finally convicted him of tax fraud earlier this year, it was fair to assume that Berlusconi’s long national adventure was coming to an end. It was also wrong.

Today, one in four Italians says that he would still vote for Berlusconi -- even if he causes the government to collapse in order to avoid a prison term. How has Berlusconi managed to maintain such popularity given his record

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