Berlusconi on the Brink

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People gather in downtown Rome on Monday waiting to hear election results

Italy’s flamboyant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi boasts of remaking his country’s perennially gray politics into a U.S.-style, image-driven affair. Some in fact say that the media mogul has taken it all too far since first running for office in 1994, staging annual cult-of-personality party conventions and making controversial use of his private television stations to beam a Reaganesque message of smiling conservatism into the living rooms of Italian voters. Still, it has been a recipe for success for Berlusconi, 69, who has been Italy’s longest serving post-War Prime Minister since his election in 2001.

But Italian politics is built upon a never-ending supply of ironies. And so it was in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, with Berlusconi in a razor-tight battle for reelection against Romano Prodi, that his center-left opponents used their own familiarity with recent American political history—along with help from Berlusconi’s own TV network—to try to seal their victory, and send the billionaire packing.

Insiders for Berlusconi’s opposition acknowledge that they had the down-to-the-wire 2000 race for the White House top of mind as the final votes around Italy were being tallied past midnight on Tuesday. For Prodi’s side, Bush’s victory in 2000 was partly a product of the first impression voters had when a Fox News began reporting that he had taken Florida in a race that was by all accounts too close to call.

Fast-forward to Rome at around 2:30 a.m. With the center-left coalition clinging to a lead of 0.01 percentage point in the race for the Lower House of Parliament, Prodi, 66, suddenly appeared on stage before a jubilant celebration. Hugs were shared, champagne was popped, victory was declared.

The party was just in time for newspapers to make their deadlines and TV cameras to capture the images, which the Berlusconi-owned TG5 news program broadcast live, and replayed the morning after. All of the hoopla came with just a minuscule margin of victory in the Lower House, and the race for the vital control of the Senate in a virtual deadlock—awaiting the final six seats to be determined by votes to be counted of Italians living abroad (it appeared later Tuesday that with support of those outside of Italy the center-left had clinched the Senate by two votes). Prodi’s appearance "in piazza" was a media moment that the center-left hopes will clinch him the Prime Minister’s job, even as Berlusconi’s allies scurried to demand a recount in a race that looks to have been decided by some 20,000 votes in an election that saw nearly 40 million Italians go to the polls. "We can govern even with a tiny majority," a center-left official told TIME. "It was a photo finish, but in mass media terms, we caught them way off guard."

Whether this bitterly fought election battle turns into a protracted political deadlock or signals the last chapter in Berlusconi’s unlikely political career remains to be seen. But whatever the final result, the story for now is still all about Silvio. The Prime Minister’s shoot-from-the-hip style of politics and oversized presence on the public stage managed to make up ground in the final weeks after polls had suggested he was headed toward a humiliating defeat. Though he has largely failed to deliver on promises to remake his country's outdated economic system, Berlusconi’s real victory may be that Italian politics—across the spectrum—will never be the same again.