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Berlusconi: Jack-in-the-box of Italian politics

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, who was sentenced to jail on Thursday for wiretap leaks, is a flamboyant billionaire whose umpteenth return to politics has not been marred by a series of trials against him.

The 76-year-old has shrugged off scandal to score political triumphs time and again and recently came a close second in the country's general elections despite lurid allegations surrounding his sex life and multiple accusations of fraud.

On Thursday, an Italian court sentenced the former prime minister to a year in prison over the publication of leaked transcripts from a police wiretap in a newspaper he owns, which were widely seen as an attempt to discredit the centre-left Democratic Party ahead of 2006 elections.

Under Italian law, the media tycoon will not serve time because people aged over 75 and with sentences of less than two years do not have to actually go to prison and sentences are in any case suspended pending appeals.

Berlusconi's image as a long-suffering businessman fighting the establishment has endured in Italy throughout a stormy political career, and he has vowed more than once to stay in politics to reform the very justice system that he claims has long been persecuting him.

He has been prime minister three times during his two decades in politics.

Berlusconi burst on to the political scene in the early 1990s, when his promises of a fresh start after a period of political corruption and scandal made an immediate impact helped by his dominance of the airwaves.

He was born in 1936, in Milan, Italy's economic capital, to a doting bank employee father and a housewife mother who never gave up staunchly defending her son's virtues. His father's contacts would prove key to his early success.

A charmer with slick hair and a winning smile, the young Berlusconi was a born entertainer. A huge fan of singer Nat King Cole, he played double bass and entertained the crowd with jokes in clubs during breaks from studying law.

He also had a brief stint as a cruise-ship crooner before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector, making a deal with the head of his father's bank and persuading others to invest in his project.

In 1978 Berlusconi set up Fininvest, a holding company which grew to include big names such as Mediaset -- with three national television channels -- and AC Milan, one of the world's leading football clubs.

Berlusconi's political success and growing influence as a broadcasting tycoon were closely entwined: the media magnate wooed millions of Italians, from disgruntled housewives to sports fans, through his vast television empire.

His daring and splashy political debut in 1993 with a new party called Forza Italia ("Go Italy") -- named after a football chant -- was unprecedented in tradition-bound Italy, and won him widespread popular support.

His first stint as prime minister in 1994 lasted only a few months.

In 2001 however, he was elected again after a media campaign, which included sending a book boasting of his achievements to 15 million Italian homes.

Nicknamed "Il Cavaliere" ("The Knight"), the media magnate remained in power until 2006 -- the longest premiership in the history of post-war Italy -- and as a divided left floundered, he was voted back in for a third time in 2008.

Despite some initial convictions for fraud, all but one of many legal cases against him have so far been won on appeal. Others have simply fallen foul of the statute of limitations in Italy's notoriously slow-moving legal system.

He faces two more verdicts this month for tax fraud and having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute and abusing the powers of his office.

Italy's richest person between 1996 and 2008 -- he owns villas around the world -- the party-loving premier has been embroiled in a string of scandals.

Details emerged of vast sums that Berlusconi had lavished on young escorts.

While his clownish behaviour may have amused some Italians, it has on several occasions got him into hot water on the international scene.

He has become notorious for his off-colour jokes and diplomatic gaffes, on one occasion likening a German Euro-MP to a Nazi.

His description of US President Barack Obama as "suntanned", his shameless flirting with female heads of state, and his close friendship with late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi also damaged his international standing.

The centre-right Berlusconi was finally ousted from the premiership in 2011 to the relief of his critics, who said his leadership had been disastrous for the economy.

But many predicted, correctly, he could not stand being out of the limelight for long.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130307/berlusconi-jack-the-box-italian-politics