Italy's New Premier Urges Backers to Be More Like Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi standing -P 2013
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The newly-installed Letta says backers should draw inspiration from the high-profile choices of the controversial media tycoon.

ROME – Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, whose appointment last week ended a two-month political impasse, on Tuesday told members of his new government to draw inspiration from the travails of Italy’s controversial Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi, the 76-year-old billionaire media tycoon whose holdings include three national television networks and the Medusa film production house, is a polarizing figure in Italy. The three-time premier, one of the country’s richest citizens, is best known for his penchant for young women, “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, and a long series of legal woes. In his last go-around as prime minister, he resigned amid fears his leadership would lead Italy into the jaws of the European debt crisis. 

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But Berlusconi has also emerged as a key backer of the new Letta government, formed two months after an inconclusive February vote resulted in a standoff between the center-right allies of Berlusconi, Letta’s own center-left coalition, and the populist party of comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo.

On Tuesday Letta’s new government won its second and final confidence vote. With that behind him, the new prime minister prepared for a good will European trip, with stops in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris -- but not before telling his government to learn from Berlusconi.

“You don’t make difficult choices if you are scared of your own identity, if you think you have a weak identity,” Letta said in his first Senate address as prime minister. “I don’t think Silvio Berlusconi someone who has a weak identity; we must have a strong identity, like Silvio Berlusconi.”

The remarks drew criticisms from some quarters.

“It’s a government of rivals and there is no doubt the challenges ahead of it are great,” said retired political scientist and author Roberto Imola. “But I would have liked to see him call on his cabinet to put the country’s needs first. As prime minister, Berlusconi was criticized for focusing on his needs.

“Putting aside the fact that he is disliked by many people, Berlusconi might not have been the best example to hold out,” Imola said.

Twitter: @EricJlyman