Media mogul could control all TV news outlets in Italy

Rich men have run for high office in many countries. But never before has a man worth $11 billion - the 23rd wealthiest person in the world according to one calculation - sought to lead the sixth-largest economy in the world.

That, though, is Silvio Berlusconi's goal.

Mr. Berlusconi is a striking example of an Italian stereotype - a highly competitive, ambitious, and aggressive businessman from the northern city of Milan. He made his fortune partly by his own efforts, but not without help from political friends in high places, who passed laws tailor-made to suit his business interests.

Berlusconi cannot be accused of false modesty; more than once he has been heard to say that he considers himself the best leader in the world. "Beside his virtues," says Giuliano Ferrara, an admirer who acted as government spokesman for Berlusconi's short-lived government in 1994, "he suffers from what the Milanese call bauscia - vanity. He likes to reassure himself of his primacy.... He has a big, big, big ego."

And business interests to match. Managed by his holding company Fininvest, his enterprises include everything from property to banking, but he has never explained who provided him his seed money, prompting allegations of Mafia links. Currently, prosecutors are conducting five separate cases against Berlusconi businesses, involving charges of corruption, false accounting, bribing judges, and tax fraud.

The jewel in his crown is Mediaset, a media giant that owns Italy's three largest commercial TV networks and a stable of newspapers and magazines whose journalists have brazenly boosted their employer during the campaign.

If he wins the elections, Berlusconi will also win indirect control of the three state-owned channels as well, giving him a virtual monopoly over TV news.

"Half the TV journalists in the country work for him already, and the other half are wondering whether they might not be doing so tomorrow," says Tana de Zulueta, a senator from the ruling Olive Tree coalition. "It has a dampening effect ... on scrutiny."

On top of this influence, Berlusconi has spent millions of dollars of his own money on his campaign, most notably sending every family in the country a copy of a hagiographic and lavishly illustrated book about his life.

Mischievous suggestions from his opponents that people should send the book back to Berlusconi without a stamp, obliging him to pay the return postage, never really caught on.

Berlusconi's populist style strikes a chord with many voters: He is very much the outsider, scorned as vulgar and dangerous by the Italian political and cultural establishment, but this probably plays in his favor among ordinary people.

"He can be populist, but only up to a point," says Mr. Ferrara, now an occasional adviser to Berlusconi.

"In the end these are practical people," he says of Berlusconi and his backers. "They have a sense of their limits, and no ideological or metaphysical complications. They want a lovely house, a family, and well-being for themselves and their team. Football is their real metaphor."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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