How Berlusconi Can Win By Losing

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after Italy's general election April 11

A billionaire like Silvio Berlusconi is used to wanting, and getting, it all. Even when he has to admit defeat, Berlusconi usually comes away better off than most. So it shouldn't be that surprising that while his days as Italian Prime Minister are now almost certainly numbered, the charismatic media mogul may well emerge from the election, ostensibly won by center left leader Romano Prodi, as what one center-left source called "winning loser." Having made up much ground in the polls in the final weeks, Berlusconi has reaffirmed his own party, Forza Italia, as the single largest political force in a Parliament likely to be led by a weak, vulnerable prime minister. "Berlusconi is about to lose the governmental powers," said the center-left official. "But as far as in purely political terms, he is very strong."

After his apparent defeat in Parliamentary elections by just 25,000 or so votes among 38 million ballots cast, some observers were expecting fireworks and demands for a nationwide recount. But Berlusconi, in his first public comments Monday night, calmly stated that he will concede defeat only once all the contested ballots are verified, adding that Italy might want to consider Germany's example of a national unity government.

But most now believe that Prodi, 66, will in fact eventually be confirmed as Prime Minister, and Berlusconi will lead the opposition. On Tuesday, though, the President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, whose own term expires next month, said institutional constraints require that the new Prime Minister be installed by Ciampi's successor. That means that Berlusconi may have as many as six to eight weeks to serve as Prime Minister of a Parliament controlled by the center-left. In that period, he may start laying out a strategy for opposing the eventual Prodi government.

For a man who turns 70 in September and has already served two separate terms as prime minister, Berlusconi is well-suited to returning to the role of billionaire opposition leader, with his boundless energy and appetites. During two exclusive interviews with TIME, in July 2003 and June 2004, those singular qualities of "Berlusconismo" were on full display.

At the first encounter at his office at the Prime Minister's headquarters of Palazzo Chigi, Berlusconi gestured to an elegant armchair for the reporter, but realized right away that the long, antique sofa where he and his aide would be sitting needed to be moved first. Rather than wait for one of the many stewards to do the heavy lifting, Berlusconi, with a technique that would impress Governor Schwarzenegger, bent down himself to move one, and then the other, side of the bulky sofa himself.

A year later, in an interview over lunch at Palazzo Grazioli, Berlusconi's private Rome residence, a waiter brought a large porcelain bowl filled with fresh cherries after the meal. Berlusconi offered the fruit to the reporter and each of his own aides, all of whom offered a polite "no grazie." With that, he slowly started to peek in the bowl to pluck out the best cherries for himself. As the conversation continued, so did the search for each new cherry, and all the while Berlusconi pulled the bowl closer and closer until his left arm was practically wrapped around it.

Berlusconi will doubtless try to put a similar grip on Prodi's new government. After all, the center-left's slim margin of victory adds to already existing doubts about Prodi's prospects of keeping his disparate allies from imploding. On foreign policy, for example, he must manage a core of coalition partners who are die-hard Communists and want Italy to break openly with U.S. policy. Prodi, who served as Italian Prime Minister in the late 1990s and later became President of the European Commission, has said he wants a more Europe-focused approach than was laid out under Berlusconi, who was a close Bush ally.

Still, Prodi's call for a steady pullout of Italian troops in Iraq is in line with an already announced Berlusconi plan for a withdrawal.

Just as likely, in fact, is that a center-left government could disintegrate over economic policy, with the coalition partners divided between market-oriented reformers and those on the far left who want to redistribute income and return to more of a state-run economy. And so while the former economics professor begins to crunch the hard numbers of a narrow victory, the larger-than-life figure on the world stage will have to give up the privileges and prestige that came with being Prime Minister, heavy lifting and all.