Berlusconi makes ignominious exit

Updated: 2011-11-14 08:32

By Barry Moody (China Daily)

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ROME - Silvio Berlusconi dominated Italy for 17 years with a unique mix of political talent and brazen behavior but in the end the born showman was humiliatingly jeered from office, brought down by pressure from abroad.

Berlusconi makes ignominious exit

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a political meeting in Naples in this file photo taken on March 26, 2006.  [Photo/Agencies]

A man who had rejoiced in his ability to talk directly to ordinary Italians looked pale and isolated as he was forced to resign on Saturday after his broken promises and crumbling power brought Italy to the brink of financial disaster.

In scenes reminiscent of the departure of his mentor, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in 1993, the 75-year-old media magnate was harried by angry crowds hurling insults and coins at his limousine as he handed his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano.

Berlusconi slipped out of the Quirinale presidential palace by a side entrance as thousands of demonstrators chanted "Clown! Clown!" and spontaneous street parties erupted.

The scandal-plagued premier, one of Italy's richest men, was forced out by weeks of turmoil on financial markets that pushed Italy's borrowing costs to levels that obliged Ireland, Portugal and Greece to seek bailouts of a kind which the eurozone could not afford for its third largest economy.

A remarkable week, that started with Berlusconi adamantly refusing to resign, ended a remarkable political career that began when he burst on to the scene in 1994 promising a fresh new approach after a corruption scandal that swept away Italy's postwar political order.

His demise was a far cry from 2008 when a landslide victory gave the media tycoon his third and strongest electoral mandate. He had been prime minister for longer than any postwar leader, painting himself as the only choice for the dominant conservative voting bloc.

Bolstered by unrivalled communication skills and a dominance of Italian media, Berlusconi had for years seemed immune to a series of controversies that would have destroyed a politician in most other parts of the world.

They included the lurid "Rubygate" scandal in which he was charged with having sex with an under-age prostitute, and a wave of salacious revelations from police wiretaps about alleged orgies at his luxurious Milan villa.

The perma-tanned media tycoon, once a cruise ship crooner, was always unrepentant about a notoriously off-color sense of humor and a series of diplomatic gaffes.

Berlusconi had been in political decline for most of this year, his former mastery undermined by glaring misjudgments in local elections and three referendums, as well as the loss of a key alliance.

Often derided abroad for his facelifts, hair transplants, make-up and gaffes, Berlusconi until recently commanded a large following particularly among middle-class women, pensioners and the self-employed, striking a chord with his warnings about the dangers of left-wing extremists.

But with lurid details from assorted sex and corruption scandals filling newspapers for months and bitter government infighting poisoning the atmosphere around him, Berlusconi's touch finally deserted him.

He had seemed to have a good chance of hanging on for scheduled elections in 2013, until markets panicked by the Greek crisis turned on Italy, focusing on the inability of Berlusconi's squabbling government to pass meaningful reforms.