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The jester who became king
Over the years, Italian Silvio Berlusconi has amazed Italians with his Houdini-like powers to escape the trickiest political traps and bounce back when all odds were against him. But this time around, as a political crisis deepens and looks poised to bring down the government within weeks, something is notably different in Italy.
How can one tell?
Because his former loyalists, who did not abandon him when he lost power in 2006 but who sense political weakness the way a dog smells fear, have visibly begun repositioning themselves for the next chapter - when Berlusconi is unlikely to be the leading man. "It's an old Italian tradition that the tenor is idolised until people start booing him, " said Beppe Severgnini, a longtime Berlusconi critic whose latest book tries to explain the Italian leader to foreigners.
This month, the booing has begun. It started at the top, with Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of the centre-right People of Liberty party, who withdrew four cabinet members on Monday. That move formalised a crisis that began when Berlusconi kicked him out of the coalition in July, costing him his parliamentary majority.
But every day, the defections - or perceived defections - multiply. Last week, Vittorio Feltri, a longtime Berlusconi loyalist and the editor of Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother, gave a peculiar interview to a rival publication in which he criticised Berlusconi. "He's tired and confused, " Feltri said in an interview in Il Fatto Quotidiano, an upstart left-wing daily. "He didn't do a lot of things that he should have done. "
For years, critics of Berlusconi stayed skittishly off the record, worried about jeopardising their futures in a patronage society in which the billionaire Berlusconi has been the leading patron. That fear extended into government, where the prime minister routinely accused Fini and others who called attention to Italy's problems of disloyalty.
That, too, has begun to change. Today, politicians and other public figures who until this month were puzzlingly silent about Italy's lack of competitiveness, low productivity, high debt, brain drain and tax evasion, among many other issues, have begun to speak openly. "Inside the P. D. L. " Berlusconi's People of Liberties party - "there's a widespread sense that Berlusconi has reached the end of the line, " said Pier Ferdinando Casini, the head of the Union of Christian Democrats, a Catholic centrist party that was allied with Berlusconi in past governments but not the current one.
"An empire's an empire, but Julius Caesar is different from Caligula, " Casini added, making a wry reference to Berlusconi's many sex scandals. He added that Berlusconi had not come through on a range of reforms, including to Italy's justice system, infrastructure and health care.
Casini is being courted furiously both by Fini and by the centre-left Democratic Party. Each wants his votes - estimated at 5. 8 percent in a recent poll in the newspaper Corriere della Sera - to help form a majority.
Indeed, while there is a growing sense that Berlusconi is on the way out, no one, including veteran political analysts, has any clear sense of who is on the way in, making this the most dynamic and uncertain moment in Italian politics in 20 years.
Ever since Berlusconi was first elected prime minister in 1994, he helped make Italian politics personality driven, with a right that orbited around him and a left that inevitably seemed divided because it lacked an equivalent. Berlusconi also helped create an illusion that Italy had a two-party system, with the help of a 2005 change to Italy's electoral law, which allowed a coalition that got less than half the popular vote to have a parliamentary majority, causing Italy's smaller parties to lose clout.
The moment of truth for Berlusconi comes in mid-December. Both houses of Parliament are scheduled to vote on, and probably approve, the 2011 budget on December 10. Berlusconi is scheduled to appear before both houses of Parliament on Dec 13 - and he will face a confidence vote in both houses on Dec 14, which may well bring down the government. On the same day, Italy's Constitutional Court is expected to rule on whether a law that grants him immunity from prosecution is constitutional. But in a country where power politics is played at the highest level, with as much fancy footwork and feigned injuries as World Cup soccer, the game is not over.
"Anyone who thinks that Berlusconi is dead and buried is completely mistaken, " Casini said. "If this crisis puts Berlusconi in the centre and lets him play the victim, Berlusconi is capable of bouncing back, " he added. But, he said, "he's in trouble when people hold him accountable for what he's done. "
THE ROMAN HOUDINI
Born in Milan in September 1936, Silvio Berlusconi made his fortune during the property boom of the 1960s and 1970s. He moved into television and his family now owns Italy's leading private TV network, Mediaset. One of Italy's richest men, he also owns football club AC Milan. He entered politics in 1994, when he launched his own centre-right party, promoting a "you can be rich like me" message. He became prime minister in May 1994, but survived in office for just eight months. He swept back into power by a landslide victory in 2001
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