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Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi (born September 29, 1936) is currently (2004) the Prime Minister of Italy. He is the leader of the Forza Italia political party (which he created specifically for his entrance into politics), and the owner of an Italian media empire. As an entrepreneur, he has interests in a variety of businesses. Forbes Magazine lists him as the wealthiest person in Italy, with an estimated net worth of $7.2 billion (as of 2002). His official tax returns declare far less.

He became known in the 1980s for the creation of a private TV network (Fininvest, now Mediaset) of national importance and for other financial companies. He became Prime Minister in 1994, but was quickly ousted from office because one of the parties (Lega Nord or Northern League) in his majority dropped out of the coalition following Berlusconis failure to respect the coalition pact, moving the majority's weight to the center-leftist side. Therefore, the coalition of opposition parties that now included Lega Nord) substituted him. In 1996 the ad-interim coalition formed by Lega Nord and center-leftist was substituted, after new political election, by a center-leftist government (without Lega Nord) lead by Romano Prodi.

In 2001 he again ran for Prime Minister as leader of the center-right Casa delle LibertÓ (House of Freedoms) coalition which includes Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), CCD, Lega Nord and other parties. The Casa delle LibertÓ was routed in the 2003 local elections.

On July 1, 2003, Italy assumed the rotating EU presidency, represented by Berlusconi.

Criticism

Upon being criticised by a German member of the European parliament Martin Schulz (SPD) during Italy's presidency, he reacted with the words "Mr. Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of kapo. You'd be perfect." The reference to the Nazis caused an uproar in the 626-seat assembly and a short diplomatic crisis between Italy and Germany.

A good friend of former premier Bettino Craxi, he has been accused of having used political pull throughout his business career, and of various sorts of corruption, including conflicts of interest. These accusations are dismissed by Berlusconi as political smears. Berlusconi is still very much locked into the cold war ideology, and anybody who is against him is branded as a communist. Many consider this rather ironic given that his legislation whould not look out of place in Orwellian novels such as 1984 and Animal farm.

Berlusconi has often been criticised of using his media power for his own political propaganda. The fact that he owns a large portion of Italy's media channels makes it harder for anti-government criticism to take place, according to critics.

Berlusconi owns three national television channels (in addition to his, and his brothers, interests in publishing), which prior to the elections took around 45% of viewer share. He made an election pledge to resolve this obvious conflict, however after taking office his government immediatly re-organised the state TV channels (claiming it was run by communists) so that around 90% of Italian telvision is controlled by people appointed by himself or his government. Several noted giornalists who where critical of Berlusconi have dissapered from the media and a series of hiccups in the running of the state television channels has allowed his own company (mediaset) to increase market share. His government has presented a new legislation for a reform of the media, but this actually incresead the percentage share that an individual was allowed to control (it should be noted that Berlusconi was allready outside the previous limits). The legislation also deals with the roll-out of digital television and internet based publishing, and hence his government claims it resolves the problem of conflict of interest and his media monopoly "by opening up more channels".

He has recently appeared on trial on charges accusing him of bribing judges who had to try important business disputes in which his companies were involved. All those judgements went to his favor by statute of limitation following years of legal nit picking by his high brow legal team.

In June 2003, facing further legal action, he pushed through a controversial law granting himself immunity from prosecution while in office. Several members of the judicary were prosecuted for taking bribes to make a decision in favour of Berlusconi but his own situation had been "frozen" by his new laws. In January 2004 his immunity legislation was annulled by the Constitutional court as it conflicted with the constitution. Subsequently Berlusconi has declared his intention to seek to re-introduce the law using the correct procedure for constitutional modification. In the meantime, his trial for corruption may recommence but it is unlikely to finish as there is ample opportunity for his legal team to use stalling tactics in order exceed the time limits.

Judicial and customs investigators have uncovered large offshore slush funds controlled by Berlusconi and his companies which were expected to lead prosecutions for finacial and tax evasion offences. So far he has avoided prosecution, in part as a result of legislation he has introduced such as de criminialising false accounting and making it more difficult to obtain legal documents from overseas. Documention from the swiss government which Italian judges required for a corruption trial were only handed over after Italy agreed not to use them to prosecute Berlusoni for the Tax evasion offences they demonstrated. Berlusconi has pushed many incentives that have allowed Italians to (anonomously) "buy off" thier criminal past for many financial offences and thus gain immunity from future prosecution.

Berlusconi has also been indicted in spain for a $25 million dollar tax fraud, but has used his status as a member of the European Parliment to gain immunity from prosecution.

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