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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 20:48 GMT 21:48 UK
Maverick Berlusconi eyes Italian premiership
Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's weathiest business tycoon and opposition leader
By David Willey in Rome

Although Italy's new centre-left government, led by Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, has only just been sworn in, the new premier could face an early defeat.

His most serious challenger in parlimanent is Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's wealthiest business tycoon and opposition leader.

It was Mr Berlusconi who forced the resignation of Mr Amato's predecessor, Massimo D'Alema, after his centre-right party, Forza Italia, led the defeat of Mr D'Alema's centre-left coalition in regional elections.
Giuliano Amato
Giuliano Amato: New leader of squabbling centre-left coalition government

Now Mr Berlusconi has been calling for new elections, and campaigning against attempts by the former Communists to resuscitate the leftwing coalition under Mr Amato's new leadership.

Mr Berlusconi has already derided Mr Amato, a respected economist who has already served once as Prime Minister, as a 'useful idiot'.

Media mogul

Mr Berlusconi built up one of Italy's most successful and lucrative business empires during the 1970s and 1980s.

He now owns three commercial television networks, the country's leading publishing house, a financial services group, and a leading soccer club - AC Milan.

Although, Mr Berlusconi has delegated the day to day running of his businesses to his children and his close aides, his family retains a controlling interest in his media empire estimated to be worth some $17bn.

Massimo D'Alema
D'Alema: Resigned after his centre-left coalition's disastrous showing in regional elections

If he ever returns as Prime Minister, the conflict of interest between his private and public roles - unsolved during his seven months in office in 1994 - will again become a major political issue.

A visceral anti-Communist, Mr Berlusconi created a new rightwing political party - Forza Italia - when the Christian Democrat party, which ran Italy for more than four decades after the end of the Second World War, imploded in a political corruption scandal.

Mr Berlusconi, although a highly professional salesman, has been less successful as a politician.

Lacks broad support

Umberto Bossi
Silvio Berlusconi joined forces with controversial Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi

He has not been able to transform Forza Italia, despite his frequent jocular references to the democracy of the soccer field and 'playing together', into a mass party attracting the broad spectrum of support from all social classes enjoyed by the old Christian Democrat party.

Forza Italia is a media-driven political movement which is something of a novelty in the fossilised world of traditional Italian party politics.

The right wing 'Freedom Pole' alliance Mr Berlusconi has formed with the post-Fascist party of Gianfranco Fini, the National Alliance, and with Umberto Bossi's Northern League did however manage to inch up its support to over 50% of the vote in the 16 April regional elections.

Mr Berlusconi has had several serious brushes with the law since he went into politics.

When you use political trials to eliminate the democratic opposition, you are no longer living in a democracy but under a regime. From now onwards, we are in opposition not to a government, but to a regime.

Silvio Berlusconi
He blames 'red judges' for all his tangles with the justice system, and points out that when he was only a businessman his judicial record was unblemished.

Found guilty of corruption by a Milan court in 1998, he was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail.

He immediately appealed. Mr Berlusconi portrays himself as a political martyr sacrificed on the altar of crusading judges who during the last decade of the 20th century prosecuted political bribe takers and givers.

He was beside himself when he learned of the verdict.

"When you use political trials to eliminate the democratic opposition you are no longer living in a democracy but under a regime," he said rather melodramatically at the time.

"From now onwards, we are in opposition not to a government, but to a regime."

Other court cases Mr Berlusconi is currently involved in concern corrupting tax officials, forging legal documents, and illegally financing political parties.

There is such a large backlog of criminal cases in Italy however that it can take up to 10 years to get a final judgement through the courts.

Until all appeals are exhausted, Mr Berlusconi, always able to afford the best lawyers, and having succeeded already in getting some convictions quashed, will never have to go to jail.

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See also:

26 Apr 00 | Europe
Italian prime minister sworn in
21 Apr 00 | Europe
Italy set for new government
21 Apr 00 | Europe
Italy to name new premier
08 Jul 98 | Europe
Convicted Berlusconi lashes out
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