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Bye Bye Bunga Bunga

Reuters is reporting that Italian President Giorgio Napolitano just announced that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will be stepping down following the approval of a new budget law. While Berlusconi won a parliamentay vote on the law today, he’s lost his majority in parliament, including his most important coalition partner Umberto Bossi. After all of Berlusconi’s ...

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Reuters is reporting that Italian President Giorgio Napolitano just announced that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will be stepping down following the approval of a new budget law. While Berlusconi won a parliamentay vote on the law today, he's lost his majority in parliament, including his most important coalition partner Umberto Bossi. After all of Berlusconi's miraculous recoveries over the years, it wouldn't have been shocking if he had found a way to hang on, but this does indeed appear to be the end of the line for one of the world's most intriguing political figures.

Berlusconi, who rose from obscurity to become his country's most powerful media mogul and politician through the combined persuasive power of right-wing populism, scantily-clad showgirls, and the old-fashioned schmoozy charm he carried over from his days as a cruise-ship nightclub entertainer, has never really made much sense to outsiders.

He's been implicated in enough criminal conspiracies to put Whitey Bulger to shame and more sex scandals than Caligula. His public comments about women (“[Right-wing female politicians are] "more beautiful" [and] "the left has no taste, even when it comes to women.”), his own sexual appetities ("It's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay"), racial minorities, ("Obama is young, handsome and also tanned"), earthquake victims ("[T]hey should see it like a weekend of camping"), and even Italy itself, ("I'm leaving this shitty country") would have ended the career of a lesser politician. Nonetheless, in his ability to appeal to average Italian voters, he was unsurpassed. 

Reuters is reporting that Italian President Giorgio Napolitano just announced that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will be stepping down following the approval of a new budget law. While Berlusconi won a parliamentay vote on the law today, he’s lost his majority in parliament, including his most important coalition partner Umberto Bossi. After all of Berlusconi’s miraculous recoveries over the years, it wouldn’t have been shocking if he had found a way to hang on, but this does indeed appear to be the end of the line for one of the world’s most intriguing political figures.

Berlusconi, who rose from obscurity to become his country’s most powerful media mogul and politician through the combined persuasive power of right-wing populism, scantily-clad showgirls, and the old-fashioned schmoozy charm he carried over from his days as a cruise-ship nightclub entertainer, has never really made much sense to outsiders.

He’s been implicated in enough criminal conspiracies to put Whitey Bulger to shame and more sex scandals than Caligula. His public comments about women (“[Right-wing female politicians are] "more beautiful" [and] "the left has no taste, even when it comes to women.”), his own sexual appetities ("It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay"), racial minorities, ("Obama is young, handsome and also tanned"), earthquake victims ("[T]hey should see it like a weekend of camping"), and even Italy itself, ("I’m leaving this shitty country") would have ended the career of a lesser politician. Nonetheless, in his ability to appeal to average Italian voters, he was unsurpassed. 

Journalist Beppe Severgnini summed up the prime minister’s unique genius in a recent interview with me:

So he knows nothing about the Internet, but he’s really a pro at daytime television. So in terms of appealing to the lower-middle class on TV, he’s the master of the universe. He knows what to say, how to dress, how to put on makeup, everything. He’s a master salesman.

Zelig, the character in Woody Allen’s film, transforms himself so he will be accepted. That’s key to understanding Berlusconi. He wants to be loved, but also to sell something to his brothers. He’s a very strange combination of a great salesman and a very insecure man who needs to be appreciated.

Given the sheer number of shenanigans and scandals he’s been able to survive through in a two-decade political career in an ostensibly democratic country, it’s hard to think of a public figure with more raw political skill on the world stage today. After everything, it finally took the greatest global financial crisis since the depression to bring him down. 

Berlusconi has returned to the premier’s office after defeat before, in 2001 and then in 2008. But at 75-years-old, another return seems unlikely. But given his stranglehold on the country’s broadcast media and many pending court cases – from which he will no longer be able to claim immunity – he’s likely to remain a public figure for some time. This tenor has probably not sung his last aria quite yet.  

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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