ROME: Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who said Wednesday that he will not be running again for prime minister, is a billionaire with a seductive smile whose tumultuous love affair with Italians has been overwhelmed by scandals.
A supremely confident and charming Berlusconi wooed Italy when he burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s. He was seen as a blast of fresh air and energy after a period of political corruption and scandal.
The media tycoon’s daring and splashy political debut in 1993 with a new party called Forza Italia (“Go Italy”) was unprecedented, and won him widespread popular support.
But while his populist style and championing of the American dream of the self-made man assured him adoration in some quarters, other Italians tired of his sleaze scandals and a series of embarrassing international gaffes.
Berlusconi was driven out of office after his unhappy handling of a fierce financial crisis stripped him of a majority in parliament in November 2011.
Known for his love of the limelight, he had left the question of his political future open for several months, but Wednesday’s announcement appears to definitively dash the hopes of supporters who had been urging him to return.
Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi was a huge fan of singers Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and spent his summers playing the double bass and performing in Milan nightclubs.
He had a brief stint as a cruise-ship crooner before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector by making a deal with the head of his father’s bank.
The mystery surrounding the sources of funding for Berlusconi’s start in the building business has led critics repeatedly to accuse him of links with organized crime.
Despite some initial convictions for fraud and lingering accusations of alliances with convicted crooks, all cases against him were won on appeal or have expired.
In 1978 Berlusconi set up Fininvest, a holding company that grew to include several large household names, including Mediaset and AC Milan, one of the world’s leading football clubs.
But poor investments saw his debts spiral in the early 1990s and critics say that Berlusconi – fearful a leftwing government would touch his powerful media conglomerate – entered politics not for ambition but to save his empire.
His first stint as prime minister in 1994 lasted only a few months, but in 2001 he was elected again after a media campaign that included sending an illustrated book boasting of his achievements to 15 million Italian homes.
Nicknamed “Il Cavaliere” (“The Knight”), the media magnate remained in power until 2006 and was voted back in for a third time in 2008 as the left floundered.
Italy’s wealthiest person between 1996 and 2008, the party-loving premier became embroiled in a string of sex and legal scandals.
The romancing prime minister splashed his wealth around, putting escorts up in luxury apartments and giving 562,000 euros ($729,000) to 14 young women in one year alone, according to bank account details released during a probe.
While Berlusconi blamed leftwing magistrates for plotting against him by putting him on trial for corruption, bribery and fraud, Italians suffering the economic crisis bemoaned his lack of action and risible reputation abroad.
He became notorious for off-color jokes and diplomatic gaffes, including likening a German member of the European Parliament to a Nazi, calling President Barack Obama “suntanned” and flirting with female heads of state.
He also dallied with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi – quipping in 2011 at the start of an uprising in the former Italian colony that he “did not want to disturb” Gadhafi although he later called on him to step down.
Berlusconi’s friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been heavily criticized, along with his exaggerated praised for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali while they were in power.
His second wife, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce in 2009 after rumors emerged of compromising relationships with young blondes and sex parties where naked girls aroused him in exchange for gifts.
His popularity took another hit after allegations surfaced that he paid an exotic then-underage starlet known as “Ruby the Heart Stealer” for sex.
Berlusconi’s joke that he should change his party’s name to “Go Pussy!” fell flat and his love affair with Italians appeared to be over after he was caught calling Italy a “shitty country” that he could not wait to leave.
His resignation was met with relief by many Italians who say his stewardship was disastrous economically and that he used his office for his own gain.
The football-mad entertainer has said he will now withdraw to act as a figure of guidance for younger party members.