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Mounting Pressure on Berlusconi
AUGUST 28, 2005 -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is walking a tight rope right now. Specifically, he is trying to maintain support for his 2006 re-election campaign while saving face with the United States amid mounting obstacles in diplomacy. This comes as he continues to revive his government after resigning from the top spot for a moment in April, a reaction to mounting criticism over Italy's sluggish economy and its support of U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Crushing blows from the center-left opposition, led by former European Commission President Romano Prodi, during the April 3 to 4 regional elections led to Berlusconi's dramatic but brief departure. Resigning and re-shuffling the Cabinet is a common political maneuver for faltering leaders in Italy, which has had 59 governments since 1949. In fact, Berlusconi, until April, had led the longest serving Italian government since World War II.
An already wealthy businessman, Berlusconi first stepped onto the political scene in 1993, when he organized his Forza Italia political party, which is named after a popular soccer chant. The first time he was elected prime minister in 1994, he was forced to resign after only seven months. But the people gave him a second chance by re-electing him in 2001. Many saw his growing empire as evidence of his leadership and business skills. They thought he could save Italy. The question remains: Can he do it?
Born in Milan on September 29, 1936, Berlusconi has grown from the son of working class parents - his father worked in a bank and his mother was a housewife - to Italy's richest man and leader. With entrepreneurship in his blood, he reportedly charged classmates to see puppet shows in elementary school and to do their homework at university.
In his younger days, he also sold vacuums, worked as a photographer and even sang on cruise ships. After graduating, he launched his career in real estate and led the Milan property boom. He bought a cable shopping channel in the mid-1970s and by 1986 had control of about 80 percent of Italy's commercial TV market, according to BBC News. In 1986, Berlusconi also purchased A.C. Milan, one of the world's most successful and popular soccer teams. (Much to Berlusconi's chagrin, the team came in second place behind Juventus of Turin at the close of the 2004-05 scudetto or Italian Serie A championship on May 22.)
Berlusconi's ownership of the majority of media outlets in Italy has both benefited and plagued him from the start of his political career. It was cause for debate about his conflicts of interests as a politician and businessman, which he has always passed off as hog wash. But the people remained skeptical. In December 2004, the Italian courts cleared Berlusconi of bribing judges and other misdeeds, but convicted one of his closest associates, which caused lingering doubt about Berlusconi's ethics.
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