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Sunday 11 August 2013


Papa's golden girl Marina poised to take Silvio's throne

Even if Berlusconi is forced off the political stage he will still wield influence, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The other day I came on the gem from a Facebook friend: "Someone, I can't quite remember who, recently attempted to explain Silvio's numerous election victories and continued popularity thus: 'You're at a party, it's pretty dull. Then suddenly your crazy mate zooms up in a Ferrari with a boot full of beer, cocaine and strippers. You know the place is gonna get trashed, you know you're gonna regret it in the morning, you know it's wrong, but he's got the beer, the coke and the strippers and you're addicted to cocaine.

"And that, m'lud, is why Italians – who love style, exuberance, flamboyance and joie de vivre – still flock to Berlusconi, the Charlie Sheen of international politics.

It's also why – after a few months in Downing Street – on being asked a solemn question about what he had learnt as prime minister, David Cameron said: "I've learnt if the Queen asks you to a party, you say yes. And if the former Italian Prime Minister asks you to a party, it's probably safer to say no."

By any reckoning, Berlusconi should be politically down and out. He's 76, after years of wriggling out of myriad prosecutions, a conviction for tax evasion has been upheld by Italy's highest court, he has to spend a year under house arrest or doing community work, he's banned from running for office for six years, there are signs that the senate may throw him out, and President Giorgio Napolitano shows no signs of succumbing to pressure to pardon him.

What's more, if his appeal against a conviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and of abusing his office fails, he'll be banned for life from public office and will face a seven-year prison sentence.

A lesser or better man might retire now into private life. How bad is it to be a billionaire under house arrest in a palace with a beautiful fiancee 50 years your junior? Francesca Pascale is a former shop assistant who was a provincial councillor until she stood down last year to spend more time with Berlusconi.

But Silvio has no intention of going quietly.

"I am alive. I am not giving up," he assured a rally of adoring fans the other day.

Stalwarts in his People of Freedom (PdL) party are suggesting that if he isn't given special treatment, they might pull out of the coalition government headed by Enrico Letta of the Democratic Party, which is fragile at the best of times as it tries to navigate between keeping the budget deficit under control and meeting Berlusconi's demands for tax cuts. And if he's chucked out of the senate and can no longer lead the PdL, which he funds and controls, it will almost certainly implode. What happens then?

One suggestion is that Marina Berlusconi, his 47-year-old daughter and the eldest of his five children, should take over.

Apparently he began taking her to business meetings while she was still in her teens and she now runs his enormous business empire and chairs Mondadori, Italy's biggest publishing company, and Fininvest, the family investment arm, a media holding company her father has owned for 50 years.

She is described as being tough, demanding and having the business drive of a "pneumatic drill": in 2007 after two years at the top she was named 33rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.

Marina has two children and gives her hobbies as sport, reading and dogs, but she also has something of her father's exotic tastes, being married to a former primo ballerino at La Scala and having been photographed dancing so enthusiastically in the Billionaire's Disco in Monte Carlo that her cleavage fell out of a dress more suitable for a guest at one of her dad's bunga bunga parties.

She has never had any involvement with the party.

"I never even thought of entering politics, it's not my role," she said in an interview in 2011. Yet she's been attending private party meetings with her father in the past week or so, and Il Giornale, a Berlusconi-owned newspaper, said last weekend: "The choice of Marina could redeem her father and us women. Every day they ask her to enter politics. She says no. Perhaps it's because she knows how to choose the right moment."

However the men seem less keen, with the leader of the PdL in the Chamber of Deputies saying: "I don't like dynasties, monarchical or republican."

Italy has a corrupt electoral system, a sclerotic economy and a creaking justice system and its electors are so disillusioned with politics that a party of amateurs led by a comedian took more than a quarter of the vote in the February general election.

Yet if Berlusconi insists on clinging to power directly or indirectly, it could all get much much worse.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards