ROME (Reuters) - Accused of sex with an underage prostitute and fawning over Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi has weathered scandals that would have obliterated any other Western leader long ago.
His survival may astonish foreign observers but is the result of a political map in which a deeply divided opposition, his domination of the media and his campaigning skill have left him as the only leader deeply conservative voters can turn to.
Writing him off as a joke because of his notorious gaffes and scandals is a fundamental mistake, analysts say.
“The weakness of the opposition is one of the ingredients but I think he has also been really very important in producing that weakness,” said Franco Pavoncello, Professor of Political Science at Rome’s John Cabot University.
“He has been a destroyer of the opposition with his own capacity to lead, his inventiveness, his unpredictability. They don’t know what to do with this guy any more,” he told Reuters.
Late last year, when Berlusconi survived a confidence vote by a tiny majority, early elections seemed imminent. Now he seems far from a political grave.
Most analysts believe elections are at least a year away but even then he will stand a good chance of being re-elected despite a sea of troubles which have led Berlusconi to dub himself as “the most persecuted man in history”.
Italy’s richest tycoon is facing four simultaneous court cases, three of them for corruption and the most high profile for allegedly having sex with an underage prostitute and then misusing the powers of his office to cover it up.
He has survived at least a dozen previous legal cases, mostly over corruption, since bursting into politics in 1994.
“Ruby”, the teenage Moroccan belly dancer at the centre of the case, has herself become a celebrity after a scandal which prosecutors say involved dozens of starlets and prostitutes attending sex parties at Berlusconi’s villa.
Lurid details of the alleged parties from phone intercepts leaked by magistrates have titillated readers around the world.
Berlusconi suffered additional damage when the Libyan uprising turned a spotlight on his warm welcome for Gaddafi last year and early reluctance to criticise his former friend.
Yet the 74-year-old media magnate, owner of A.C. Milan football club, looks stronger than he did a few weeks back.
He has neutralised the threat from former ally -- now arch-enemy -- parliamentary speaker Gianfranco Fini by winning over several deputies who had joined a revolt against Berlusconi. Fini says they were bribed to change sides.
Berlusconi this week also is launching what he calls an “epoch-making” reform of the judiciary which critics say is aimed only at protecting him from the law and getting revenge over the judges who have pursued him for decades.
However, Berlusconi’s repeated accusations that left-wing magistrates are using illegal wiretaps for political purposes strikes a strong chord with conservative voters, as do his references to the danger from a long-dead communist party.
Professor Gianfranco Pasquino of Bologna University said most Italians sympathise with reform because they hate a byzantine legal system which can take many years to produce a verdict and which is littered with miscarriages of justice.
“He is very astute, very cunning...he has used a bit of corruption but he is very good at campaigning, less good at government, but extremely good at selling his product. He can still win elections. He is a great salesman,” Pasquino said.
Ironically, Berlusconi’s rise was made possible by the very class of investigating magistrates he is attacking.
The 1992 “Clean Hands” investigation uncovered a huge web of corruption in Italy, in the process sweeping away a deeply compromised political order including the Christian Democrat party that had dominated since the World War Two.
Berlusconi swept into the vacuum and has remained the unchallenged leader of the centre-right ever since.
The role of magistrates in that revolution makes Berlusconi’s conservative base highly receptive to the charge that left-wing judges and journalists are trying to use the courts to achieve what they cannot get through the ballot box.
Some voters, women as well as men, still believe Berlusconi represents a national model of the strutting, successful Latin male that is admired rather than reviled.
“There is a basic problem that this is a country with a low level of public morality,” Pasquino said.
A big reason for Berlusconi’s power is his stranglehold on the media through his own private television stations and, since he became prime minister, the state channels.
His private television empire, full of scantily clad starlets and frothy variety shows, has conditioned public opinion for decades. Critics say this has led many women to believe being a showgirl is the way to success -- a former model is a minister.
“We ought to look at Berlusconi as a 30-year phenomenon and not a 17-year one because by changing Italian viewing habits...he did change Italy,” Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome said.
“The fact that the superficial becomes a reality...It means if you have good legs you can become a minister.”
While hundreds of thousands of women protested against Berlusconi last month, there are plenty of prominent women who are loyal to him, including five government ministers.
“It is my honour to collaborate with this man...I defend him because I believe in him,” a senior woman politician who has supported Berlusconi for 17 years told Reuters privately.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)