Italy - Rise to power

In the course of his rising financial career, Berlusconi became associated with Italy's former Socialist premier Bettino Craxi. In response to Craxi's corruption trial in 1993, Berlusconi decided to enter politics himself. He resigned all his positions in Fininvest and in 1994 founded the Forza Italia (Go Italy) party. In a coalition with the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) and the Lega Nord (Northern League) parties, Forza Italia won the 1994 general election and Berlusconi became prime minister.

Misfortune followed. He lost office after only 225 days with the loss of support from the Northern League. An attempt at reelection failed in 1996. Subsequent charges of corruption led to a 1998 conviction for illegal party financing and a sentence of two years and five months. An appeal led to his acquittal, and he was acquitted of additional charges of false accounting practices related to the purchase of A.C. Milan soccer player Gianluigi Lentini after a statute of limitations law came into effect. Berlusconi has also been convicted of bribing tax inspectors between 1989 and 1991; and in Spain he is under investigation for tax fraud related to his interests in Spanish television.

The most serious corruption charges against Berlusconi were ongoing in 2003. The 2003 case involves allegations that Berlusconi and co-defendant Cesare Previti, the former defense minister, bribed judges in connection with Berlusconi's attempt to buy SME, a state-owned food company, in 1985. The aim was to persuade the judges to rule that the sale of SME to Berlusconi's business competitor Carlo De Benedetti was null and void. Berlusconi wanted to acquire the company for himself and his partners, and offered a higher bid than that accepted by Romano Prodi, the former head of the state-controlled holding company that was selling SME. Berlusconi countered the bid De Benedetti offered, and Prodi accepted. In 2003, Prodi served as the president of the European Commission. Berlusconi had denied any wrongdoing in the bribery case, although Previti was convicted and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment in April 2003 in a separate case. Berlusconi supporters are calling for immunity from prosecution, as Berlusconi is the first sitting prime minister to appear at his own trial. Prior to 1993, Italy's politicians had immunity from prosecution; as of May 2003 two immunity proposals were being considered—one that would block trials against the country's top five officials, and one that would bring back immunity for the sitting members of parliament.

Despite all of the corruption charges and protests against him (hundreds of thousands of Italians marched against Berlusconi in 2002), Silvo Berlusconi remains a successful and effective politician. He was reelected member of the European Parliament in 1999, and between 1996 and 2001, remained leader of the opposition in parliament. On 13 May 2001, Berlusconi once again became prime minister as leader of the "Casa della Liberta" (House of Freedoms) coalition, winning the general election by some 18.5 million votes.

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