Berlusconi to Italy: Come On, You Know You Want To

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Andreas Solaro/ AFP /Getty

Conservative Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.

Italians call it the gesto dell'ombrello, that crude "f--- you" gesture of fist meeting the bend of the arm where some folk carry their closed umbrella. And one YouTube video popular with Italian Internet users last week, as campaign maneuvers and pollsters' predictions filled the air ahead of next month's national elections, depicted a grinning Silvio Berlusconi, the play-by-his-own-rules media titan and former Prime Minister, appearing to make that particular "umbrella" gesture to a crowd of gathered reporters.

Yes, Berlusconi is back, though as rap star LL Cool J might say, don't call it a comeback. The billionaire who once presented himself as the freshest product in Italian politics has now clocked 15 years as the singular fulcrum of the nation's public life. Elected Prime Minister in 1994, but ousted later that same year, Berlusconi was reelected in 2001 — and voted out five years later. Now, after the premature collapse of Romano Prodi's center-left government in January, Berlusconi appears to be the only viable center-right candidate for the top job.

It will be his fifth run for Prime Minister, with two wins and two losses so far. His chief rival this time is former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, a fixture of the center-left who is garnering praise for a more media-savvy campaign approach than his more technocratic predecessors. With a dysfunctional electoral law, of course, one possible outcome of the April 13-14 vote will be a virtual tie, leaving the two rivals to form a working "Veltrusconi" parliamentary super-majority.

Still, as the campaign marches on, Berlusconi remains the unrivaled master of hogging the spotlight. Last weekend, he finished off a speech by theatrically tearing up a piece of paper he said was a copy of Veltroni's policy program. During a televised encounter with voters Thursday, a young woman asked what the younger generation should do about the lack of secure jobs. The billionaire, ever grinning, promptly suggested that she try to marry "the son of Berlusconi... with the smile that you have, you could try."

Indeed, among the many mysteries of "Berlusconismo" is how his popularity is affected by such episodes. They were initially labeled as "gaffes," from which he supposedly had to recover. But as time went on, and the circus kept coming back to town, there seemed to be some kind of method to the crassness. The umbrella gesture followed the cuckold "corna" (horns) sign — pinky and forefinger behind the head — he performed on the Spanish foreign minister in 2002, and the flashing of his middle finger at a campaign rally in 2006. "Well, he's now pulled off the trifecta of obscene hand gestures," quipped Filippo Ceccarelli, a La Repubblica political columnist and astute observer of the phenomenologia of this unique political animal. "With Berlusconi, you must understand that the body, the physicality, has always been key to his image."

And image is everything for the former cruise ship singer, who has managed to convince a large swath of Italians that he is the idealized, super-rich version of what they could be. During his last term in office, from 2001-2006, Berlusconi broke a kind of plastic barrier in modern politics, openly admitting to cosmetic surgery and hair replacement treatment. Whether pushing elective office toward the ridiculous, or a more authentic rapport with ordinary people, Berlusconi has managed to avoid the fate of so many political veterans: Nobody can call him boring.

Still, troubling questions linger: Berlusconi has a gargantuan conflict of interest and judicial troubles that just won't quit. As owner of Italy's three main private TV channels, and a host of other media and financial holdings, he has always refused to turn over control to anyone but his two grown children and a boyhood friend. Meanwhile, on the judicial front, Berlusconi has been able to convince many that he is the eternal victim of politically motivated magistrates. He spent much of his energy as Prime Minister shaping laws that were helpful for him personally, both in the business and legal arenas.

Despite his continuing star power, few still see him as a savior. If he succeeds — and polls give him a 5-8 percentage point advantage over Veltroni — it will be because his center-right formation is seen as the lesser of evils. Berlusconi may even be moving subtly away from his maverick image. Ceccarelli has noticed a slight tweak to the billionaire's image, including a change in his wardrobe to a more casual attire from his standard double-breasted blue suit. "Now, he openly says that he's old. He relates to the senior citizens," says Ceccarelli. "But he makes it clear that though he's getting old, he's not losing his mind."