- Speculation grows that Silvio Berlusconi's colorful career is drawing to close
- Berlusconi dogged by many scandals since he entered politics two decades ago
- He was cleared of tax fraud, but faces charges of paying for sex with under-age girls
- Economists say Berlusconi commanded insufficient political authority amid crisis
In an era of bland technocratic leaders, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi always stands out. Massively rich, charming and outspoken, and not a little vain, he has long been a compelling presence on the world stage. But speculation is now growing that his career is drawing to a close.
Until recently, Berlusconi was leading a charmed life. His vast business empire spanned media, construction and football, making him the 118th richest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $6.2 billion, while this year he become Italy's longest serving post-war prime minister. Then Berlusconi became embroiled in charges that he had paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl; his coalition government became ever more fragile, and Europe's financial crisis threatened to embroil Italy.
Despite the many scandals that have dogged Berlusconi since he entered politics nearly two decades ago, the 75-year-old is undisputedly one of life's survivors. Despite facing numerous trials, no charge against him has ever been proven in court; in parliament opponents have tabled 51 confidence votes in him in the last three years alone, but Italians have thrice elected him as prime minister.
Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi gave notice early on of his showman side by working as a lounge room crooner aboard a cruise ship to help fund his university tuition -- he studied law.
Various low-level commercial enterprises followed before the fledgling entrepreneur enjoyed his first real success in property development in the late 1960s when he was involved in a project to build Milano Two -- nearly 4,000 flats -- outside Milan.
After amassing a fortune from his growing property portfolio in the 1970s, he diversified his interests by setting up a TV cable company, Telemilano, and buying two other cable channels in an effort to break the national TV monopoly in Italy. In 1978 these channels were incorporated into his newly-formed Fininvest group, which also included department stores, insurance companies and even AC Milan -- one of the world's biggest football clubs.
Berlusconi turned his attention to politics in 1993 when he formed the center-right Forza Italia Party and the following year he was elected as prime minister after a snap election. However a dispute with his right-wing coalition partners from the Northern League Party, as well as an indictment for alleged tax fraud, brought Berlusconi's tenure to an end barely seven months into the job. He was acquitted on appeal in 2000 after the statute of limitations -- which sets a time limit on bringing legal action -- had expired.
After defeat in the 1996 election to political nemesis Romano Prodi, he was embroiled in other financial scandals, including a charge of bribing tax inspectors. He denied any wrongdoing and was cleared again on appeal in 2000.
His fortunes turned again in 2001 when he was sworn in as prime minister for a second time. But Prodi -- a former European Commission President -- ended Berlusconi's more successful reign with his center-left Union coalition victory in 2006. At that time, the tycoon had presided over the longest-serving post-war Italian government.
Despite having a pacemaker fitted to regulate his heartbeat after he collapsed during a political rally, he refused to slow down. He had a much talked about hair transplant and cosmetic surgery - and a tanned Berlusconi was back in power for a third time in 2008 under the banner of the newly-created People of Freedom party.
The next 12 months proved to be a year of extremes for the veteran politician. He was praised for his handling of the devastating earthquake which struck the Italian town of L'Aquila in April, 2009, and even survived criticism after urging survivors to see their plight like "a weekend of camping."
But the following month Berlusconi's second wife, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce -- claiming Berlusconi had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model whose birthday party he had attended. Berlusconi said she was the daughter of a friend and that he had done nothing wrong.
In December that year, Berlusconi was hit in the face with a replica of Milan's cathedral at a campaign rally, breaking several of his teeth and fracturing his nose. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the irrepressible Berlusconi continued to shake hands with supporters for "a couple of minutes" after being hit.
Meanwhile Italian prosecutors expanded their tax fraud investigation into the country's biggest commercial broadcaster, Mediaset, which Berlusconi controls. He was accused of reducing Mediaset's tax liabilities by purchasing U.S. movie rights at inflated prices and then creating illegal slush funds, but last month he was cleared of all charges.
With the country's economy reeling amid the financial crisis -- Italy's debts of $2.7 trillion equal about 150% of its economic output -- pressure on Berlusconi grew. Gianfranco Fini -- a former party ally -- lashed out, accusing him of a lack of attention to the economy and structural reforms that Italy needs. The PM survived three votes of confidence in parliament during 2010 and this year, winning one by just three votes, but his authority continued to drain away.
Economists said Berlusconi commanded insufficient political authority to push through spending cuts or the moral high ground to squeeze more taxes out of Italians while he faced trial on various charges. Other European leaders criticized him for failing to implement a serious economic reform program with sufficient urgency.
Meanwhile Berlusconi faced a serious personal challenge, and one that could yet land him in prison, with charges of sex with an underage nightclub dancer and abuse of power.
Berlusconi had sex 13 times with underage dancer Karima el Mahroug, nicknamed "Ruby the heart-stealer," say prosecutors who claim the PM abused his position when he intervened in May 2010 to get her released from the jail where she was being held on charges of theft. El Mahroug has said she never had sex with Berlusconi and that she lied to him about her age, telling him she was 24.
In September 2011 prosecutors submitted transcripts of approximately 100,000 pages of wiretaps, made in 2008 and 2009, to a court in Bari. The prosecutors have accused eight people of paying young women to attend so-called "bunga bunga" parties at Berlusconi's private home.
Berlusconi denied all charges and accused prosecutors of conspiring against him in a left-wing plot. "Communism never changes in Italy. There are still people who use the penal code as a weapon in their ideological battles," he said earlier this year.
But according to the transcripts of the calls, Berlusconi made several controversial remarks, vowing at one point to leave Italy which he described as a "shitty country" that "sickened" him. Characteristically,. When confronted with these remarks, Berlusconi laughed off this and many other gaffes, but judging by recent protests against him, many Italians would say the sentiments are entirely mutual.