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Forget the tax fraud and sex scandals. Italy’s Berlusconi is back.

MILAN —Carmen Barbagallo has a rule about voting: “Always Berlusconi!”

The 80-year-old waitress has been impressed by, amused by and voting for Silvio Berlusconi, 82, the flamboyant billionaire and scandal-splattered former prime minister, for as long as she can remember because “he is so smart and always helps people.”

Last month, her vote helped Berlusconi win a seat in the European Parliament, an improbable act of political resurrection and resilience for a grandfather just out of the hospital for bowel surgery. And she said she will continue to vote for him until either he or she is no longer around.

“So will my whole family,” she said.

Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister, has been a force in Italy — a tornado of power, wealth, charm, wit, ego, dirty jokes, and swirling scandals of sex and money — since he was first elected in 1994.

His new job in the European Parliament — the first elected office he’s held since he was forced out of the Italian Senate over a tax-fraud conviction in 2013 — means that, while diminished, “he’s still important,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the School of Government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.

“It’s remarkable, because anyone else would be dead and buried politically by now,” Orsina said. “This man really has an uncommon vitality. . . . He doesn’t want to die. He has strength and stamina and desire to lead.”

Berlusconi will take his seat on July 2 in Strasbourg, France, as one of the 751 members of the European legislative body. He has long been skeptical of the European Union, but he has said he will use his new post to promote a more united Europe at a time when Italy is dominated by a fervently populist and anti-European government.

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

But announcing his candidacy in January, he said he felt a “sense of responsibility to head for Europe, where there is a lack of deep thinking about the world.” He also blasted the current Italian government, which, he said, “is led by people who have no experience and no competence.”

Berlusconi was premier for more than nine years between 1994 and 2011. While that tenure wouldn’t break records in many countries, it’s longer than any other Italian leader since World War II; 22 of Italy’s 29 postwar prime ministers served less than three years.

Italians are expecting Berlusconi to spice up the dull hum of E.U. politics. Like President Trump, to whom he is often compared, Berlusconi over the years has infuriated his critics, dazzled his fans and created a unique style of showboat, personality-driven politics.

Joking about his most infamous scandal, over “bunga bunga” parties at his villa involving lots of very young women and allegations of paid sex, Berlusconi told a crowd in 2011: “When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30 percent of women said, ‘Yes,’ while the other 70 percent replied, ‘What, again?’ ”

When Berlusconi was convicted in the 2013 tax fraud case, he railed that he had been subjected to “judicial harassment that is unmatched in the civilized world.” He was sentenced to public service, which he performed at a nursing home, playing a piano he donated and singing for Alzheimer’s patients.

Berlusconi has always been a Trumpian figure — albeit one who quotes poetry and speaks at least three languages. He is known for his joyous mirror-worship, once calling himself “the best political leader in Europe and in the world.”

On the campaign trail in 2006, he rated himself even higher: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”

He is also close — critics say uncomfortably close — to Russian President Vladimir Putin. As prime minister, he brokered a remarkable 2002 meeting between Putin and George W. Bush to sign a new cooperation deal between Russia and NATO.

In 2008, a prostitute alleged that she had sex with the famously libidinous Italian leader on a bed given to him by Putin. Berlusconi’s indignant response was that he had “never paid for a woman.” In return, Berlusconi marked Putin’s 65th birthday by giving the Russian leader a duvet cover featuring a huge image of the two men shaking hands.

Berlusconi has a personal approval rating of just 21 percent nationally, according to Ipsos Public Affairs. His party, Forza Italia, which he created and still dominates like a private social club, won 14 percent of the vote in last year’s general election but just 8.8 percent last month. And his voters are getting older and older: Ipsos research shows that 35 percent of voters for Berlusconi and his party in the recent election were over 65.

Yet Berlusconi marches on. The media-and-real-estate mogul — who is worth more than $6 billion, according to Forbes — has evolved into an elder statesman, flawed but familiar. Even for many Italians who can’t stand him, he looks almost centrist compared with the country’s nationalist government.

“Berlusconi is a dinosaur, and we cannot take him too seriously,” said Piero Colaprico, a journalist from La Repubblica newspaper, which has long battled Berlusconi. “But this vote means that in Italy, dinosaurs are not yet extinct.”

Still on trial

Adding to his lore, Berlusconi won his seat in the European Parliament despite his ongoing trial on charges of witness tampering.

Berlusconi was convicted in 2013 of paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl at a “bunga bunga” party he hosted at his villa near Milan. He received a seven-year suspended prison sentence and a lifetime ban on holding public office. The conviction and ban were later overturned by an appeals court that said there was no proof Berlusconi knew the girl was underage.

But prosecutors allege that Berlusconi paid many of the young women from those parties to lie on the witness stand. Several testified in support of Berlusconi’s contention that the parties were merely “elegant dinners.”

“There was an agreement between Berlusconi and the girls to lie,” said Tiziana Siciliano, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, as she printed out a 52-page statement of the current charges against Berlusconi.

The document identifies 23 women by name and details hundreds of thousands of euros in monthly payments in cash, plus cars and houses, that prosecutors allege Berlusconi gave to the women to testify falsely.

Berlusconi has denied those charges, just as he has always denied that he paid for sex with anyone at his parties.

Giorgio Mulé, a member of the Italian Parliament from Forza Italia and a close Berlusconi ally, said Italy’s judiciary, which has long been dogged by allegations of partisanship, was stacked against Berlusconi.

“He is the symbol of the Italian Dream — everything he touches transforms into gold,” said Mulé, who argued that most Italians don’t care who has sex with the twice-divorced Berlusconi, who currently has a 33-year-old partner.

“For the Italian people, bunga bunga is not a problem; it’s like a medal,” he said. “The Italians are pragmatic. He can do anything he wants to do. He was a successful man. He had money. They look at him like a symbol of Italy.”

To make sure the case didn’t affect his chances in the election, Berlusconi sought, and was granted by a judge, a nearly two-month pause in the trial before the voting, Siciliano said.

“Only in Italy,” she said in an interview in her Milan office.

Adding to the drama was the mysterious March 1 death of Imane Fadil, 34, a Moroccan-born model who said she attended a “bunga bunga” party in 2010. Fadil testified against Berlusconi at his original trial and was scheduled to testify at the witness-tampering trial, too.

But Fadil was stricken by a sudden, agonizing illness. She told family members she feared she had been poisoned. She died after a month. Preliminary post-mortem exams showed damaged bone marrow and unexplained high levels of cadmium, antimony, chromium and other metals in her blood. Full autopsy results are due in the coming weeks.

The case has raised questions because of its dramatic circumstances — and because it happened at center stage of the soap opera of Berlusconi’s life.

Afterward, Berlusconi told reporters that he had never met Fadil and that her claims about him sounded “absurd” and “invented.”

Siciliano said she had no reason to believe Berlusconi had anything to do with Fadil’s death. But the case was being investigated as a potential murder, she said, in part because Fadil became ill shortly after a television interview in which she claimed to have “more things to say.” Prosecutors had to consider the possibility that Fadil’s interview had alarmed someone who then poisoned her, Siciliano said.

Fadil’s own lawyer, Paolo Sevesi, discounted the poisoning theory as “not plausible.”

“But I cannot understand why a healthy young woman deteriorated so quickly,” he said. “It is a strange coincidence.”

Whatever he wants

None of Berlusconi’s controversies seem to matter much in Milano Due, a residential development built by Berlusconi in the 1970s. On a recent hot summer day, people strolled along shady pathways there next to apartment buildings with pretty red geraniums on the balconies.

“I used to vote for him, but not anymore,” said Luisa Cominelli, 80, who sat on a bench with her friend, Silvana Restelli, 67, next to the man-made lake at Milano Due’s center.

Cominelli said she thought Berlusconi should make way for younger politicians. But she still admires him, as do most people here, where a plaque honors the “perennial memory” of Berlusconi’s construction of homes for thousands of people.

“Even people who don’t vote for him respect him,” Cominelli said. “He brought something new and exciting into politics. A lot of people will vote for him forever.”

At the Club House cafe, Carmen Barbagallo read a newspaper while her son, Gianpaolo Del Bianco, 54, who owns the place, made coffee and sandwiches behind the small counter.

“[Berlusconi] can do whatever he wants in his private life,” Barbagallo said. “I separate the public and the private.”

Del Bianco said he never believed the bunga bunga stories anyway: “He never had sex with those girls. They were like daughters to him.”

Del Bianco said he moved into Milano Due in 1987 and watched Berlusconi grow his business and political empires for more than 30 years, creating countless jobs for Italian workers. He said Italy needed Berlusconi now more than ever.

“A man like this is born once in 100 years,” he said.

kevin.sullivan@washpost.com

Source|The Washington Post

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