He has weathered sex scandals and corruption allegations that would have sunk the career of most politicians long ago.
But Silvio Berlusconi was dealt a fresh blow today in Italy’s parliament, after he backtracked on his attempt to undermine the country's fragile ruling coalition and ultimately supported its continuation.
Yet analysts caution that the reversal may not drive the final nail in the coffin of Mr. Berlusconi's political fortunes.
The billionaire businessman’s standing has been dramatically weakened after an unprecedented revolt by members of his center-right People of Freedom party forced him to change tack and vote in favor of a confidence vote in the coalition government of Enrico Letta, the prime minister.
“Berlusconi emerges from this vote as a much weakened leader, and certainly no longer the ‘owner’ of the party he created in 2008,” says Daniele Albertazzi, a lecturer on European politics. “The events of the last two days mark a turning point in Italian politics.”
It was a dramatic about-face. For weeks, Berlusconi had been threatening to withdraw support for the shaky coalition, and he ratcheted up the pressure on Saturday by ordering the five members of his party who serve as ministers in the government to resign.
But in an unexpected development, around 25 of his senators openly defied him, saying that they would instead side with the five-month-old government, which is trying to revive Italy’s stagnant economy, tackle youth unemployment of 40 percent, and reform a dysfunctional political system.
“Berlusconi's humiliating U-turn is an enormous boost to Enrico Letta and to his government,” says Christopher Duggan, an expert on Italian politics from Reading University in Britain. “It leaves Berlusconi greatly weakened, and with the judicial noose tightening around him, his political star now looks to be firmly waning.”
A bridge too far?
Once renowned for his unerring political judgment, Berlusconi badly miscalculated, says Dr. Albertazzi.
“Berlusconi’s gamble was that an election could deliver him a large majority, thus enabling him to pass legislation which could shelter him from the consequences of past and future trials – something that has already happened several times in the past.”
And his reversal appears to be a similar survivalist move, says James Walston, a professor of politics at the American University of Rome.
“He’s desperate,” says Dr. Walston. “He was losing control of his party and he thinks that by backing down [on the confidence vote] he can somehow regain control. And he thinks he will have more influence with his people inside the government than if they were in opposition.”
But while Berlusconi may have been badly wounded politically, declaring his career over is a dangerous game. Again and again he has shown himself to be the comeback kid of international politics.
He seemed to be a spent force in 2011 when his mismanagement of Italy’s acute financial crisis forced him to resign, but within weeks he had bounced back and has been firmly at the center of Italian politics ever since.
A chilly fall for Berlusconi
Nonetheless, as Berlusconi licks his wounds from his about-face in parliament, there are fresh dangers looming on the horizon.
A Senate committee will vote on Friday on whether to recommend expelling him from parliament for good, after he was convicted in August of tax fraud and given a four-year sentence.
The motion will be put to the entire Senate in mid-October, with the upper house expecting to vote for his expulsion.
An amnesty law means that Berlusconi, who recently turned 77, will not go to prison. Instead he is expected to be put under house arrest or made to do some form of community service for 12 months.
But even that will not be the end of his troubles.
He is appealing against a seven-year jail sentence handed down by a court in Milan, after it found him guilty of abuse of office and paying for sex with a teenage erotic dancer, whom prosecutors alleged was working as a prostitute.
He has also launched an appeal in another criminal case, from March this year, in which he was given a one-year prison sentence for leaking illegally obtained wire-taps to smear the center-left opposition over the acquisition of an Italian bank.
In yet another scandal, prosecutors in Naples are planning to bring charges against the media mogul for allegedly paying a three million euro bribe to a left-wing senator, Sergio De Gregorio, who then switched to Berlusconi’s conservative party, helping the media tycoon win the subsequent election.
Et tu, Alfano?
On top of all that, the party is now in chaos and likely to fragment into two antagonistic factions, with moderates forming a breakaway group and loyalists remaining with the former premier under the banner of his recently resurrected Forza Italia political movement.
To make matters worse, the mutiny of parliamentarians was led by one of his most trusted and senior collaborators: Angelino Alfano, the national secretary of the party and Berlusconi’s anointed political heir.
He has now been branded a “traitor” by Berlusconi die-hards and likened in the Italian press to Brutus, who turned on Julius Caesar.
“I think the split is probably irrevocable. Certainly, Berlusconi’s prestige and influence is diminished,” says Walston. “But he still commands a lot of loyalty, both within the party and among the electorate. It is waning, but it is still there.”
Even if he is kicked out of parliament, Berlusconi will retain control of what remains of his party, and his immense wealth and influence on public opinion through his Mediaset television empire ensures that he will remain a thorn in the side for the Letta government.
“Berlusconi has seven lives and it is not out of the question that he could invent an eighth one,” Antonio Polito, a political commentator, wrote in the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera.