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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 02:45 GMT 03:45 UK
Berlusconi sets longevity record
The BBC's Tamsin Smith
By Tamsin Smith
BBC correspondent in Rome

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
The record is a tribute to Berlusconi's drive and charisma
As AC Milan celebrates winning the Italian league this week, it is a double victory for the team's owner, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

He takes home the trophy for heading the longest-serving Italian government since World War II.

On the volatile playing field of Italian politics, he has kept the same administration and fractious coalition allies in power for 1060 days.

This beats the previous record set 18 years ago by Socialist Bettino Craxi.

Mr Berlusconi's longevity is partly attributed to reform of Italy's electoral system a decade ago.

Majority voting finally introduced stability to a constantly shifting political landscape, dominated by fragile patchworks of small party coalitions.

Since the foundation of the Italian republic after World War II, there have been 59 changes of government, hence the nickname of Italy's "revolving door politics".

It is also a tribute to the drive and charisma of Silvio Berlusconi - the self-made businessman turned politician who created his Forza Italia party from the ruins of Italy's traditional party system, swept away by corruption scandals in the early 1990s.

Unruly partners

Since his election in May 2001, he has fought hard to keep on board unruly coalition partners such as the far-right Northern League.

We've already won three elections, so our days in office are just a number
Italian official
The centre-left parties in opposition, meanwhile, have floundered without clear leadership and are still deeply divided on many issues.

So is the Italian government cracking open the Champagne?

"No, there won't be a party," one government official said.

"It wouldn't seem right at the moment with the Italian hostage crisis in Iraq, and anyway we've already won three elections, so our days in office are just a number."

Whilst Mr Berlusconi's government is long-lived, so is the controversy surrounding his leadership.

His penchant for outspoken comments has often provoked fury on the international stage.

Conflict questions

Comparing a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp guard in the European Parliament last year provided a less than auspicious start to Italy's presidency of the European Union.

Lucia Annunziata
Ms Annunziata is the second high-profile figure to quit Rai in a week
And allegations over the prime minister's conflict of interests have dogged his term in office.

Italy's richest man is accused by his critics of passing bills to feather his own nest.

An immunity law passed by the government to protect the prime minister from standing trial in a corruption case has now been overturned by the constitutional court.

A new media signed this week will further cement Mr Berlusconi's control over 90% of television, opponents say, and will allow him to acquire more newspapers and radio stations.

The head of state broadcaster RAI, Lucia Annunziata, has announced her resignation to protest against Mr Berlusconi's media influence.

A report by the European Parliament published last week also criticised the prime minister's media holdings.

Attraction of wealth

But many analysts agree that these issues do not generally affect the prime minister's popularity.

In fact many Italians voted for Silvio Berlusconi precisely because of the attraction of his vast wealth.

They reasoned that with such great personal fortunes, this would not be a politician with his hand in the state till.

And they also hoped that he would create for Italy the successes he had created for himself.

People also relished the colourful personality of their leader who seems as at ease strumming a guitar or telling jokes as talking on the political stage.

There are, however, questions about how much the government has achieved in office.

Rigid labour laws have been revised, giving a much needed boost to business, but little progress has been made on the crucial issue of pension reforms.

Downturn

Recent opinion polls now point to a downturn in Mr Berlusconi's ratings.

Alitalia plane
Italy's national air carrier faces bankruptcy
A sign of general mid-term blues or something more serious? There are several problems looming on the horizon.

The Italian economy is floundering, with the state-controlled airline Alitalia on the verge of bankruptcy.

And with three Italian bodyguards still held hostage in Iraq, there is mounting public unease over the government's unwavering support for the US-led war in Iraq.

The face of Silvio Berlusconi, tanned and wrinkle-free now smiles down from giant billboards across Italian cities.

The upcoming local and European elections will be a test of his popularity.

Mr Berlusconi recently said he even sees himself being re-elected to the next legislature. He may have several hurdles to jump first.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Frances Kennedy
"European elections in June will be an important test for Mr Berlusconi"



SEE ALSO:
Bankruptcy warning for Alitalia
04 May 04  |  Business
Tough times ahead for Berlusconi
15 Apr 04  |  Europe
Berlusconi to face renewed trial
14 Jan 04  |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
26 Mar 03  |  Country profiles


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