To follow Italian politics today is rather like watching the terrible last bouts of a heavyweight champ on the slide. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi turned 74 on 29 September. His plastic surgeons can keep on nipping and tucking, but they can't do anything about the expression on his face as he lambasts party or parliament - the look of a child shaken roughly from sleep and on the brink of tears or a sulk. Nor can they do anything about that voice, at once husky and adenoidal, with which he assaults his enemies near and far.
While he was merely a billionaire businessman, Berlusconi built himself a pyramid-shaped mausoleum at his country seat north of Milan, but after tasting political power for the first time he boasted he would live to be 120 and that he was as strong as an ox. Only two years ago - as we learned from an embarrassing kiss-and-tell memoir by a prostitute named Patrizia d'Addario - his relentless libido could keep him going all night. The same year, his coalition won a general election by the biggest margin in the history of the republic, with a majority of 58 in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and 21 in the Senate. Berlusconi suddenly started to behave like Mussolini: wiping off the clownish grin, declaring his determination to get things done, strutting round Naples as he inspected overflowing piles of rubbish (which he duly got rid of), flying back and forth from the earthquake-flattened city of L'Aquila three times a week, dashing around in hard hat and polo shirt, directing relief operations.
Yet, two years on, Berlusconi seems fatigued. Less than halfway through his mandate, his coalition is crumbling. One of his two most important allies, Gianfranco Fini, who was his deputy between 2001 and 2006, has deserted. A neo-fascist whom Berlusconi brought in from the cold in 1994 and who steadily mutated into a Euro-statesman of repute, Fini had a very public shouting match with Berlusconi in April. On 5 October, after a summer of acrimonious sparring, Fini announced his plan to launch the Futuro e Libertà ("future and freedom") party.
Before that, on 29 September - "un compleanno di merda", or "birthday of shit", as Berlusconi described it - the prime minister got through the most crucial battle of his political life so far, a debate on the five-point government programme that he has promised to implement by the end of this parliament in 2015. "He looked as if he was on Valium," one newspaper correspondent noted. He read out the programme word for word - and it took 57 minutes. Gone was the old Berlusconi elan: the jokes, the billets-doux passed across the benches to his most decorative MPs, the colourful denunciations. The motion was passed by a healthy majority of 64, but only because Fini and his team decided, for tactical reasons, to back it.
The Fini-Berlusconi divorce - unlike Berlusconi's divorce from his wife, Veronica Lario, which is still in the hands of the lawyers - is final. Fini and the MPs loyal to him could sink Berlusconi whenever they wish. What could provoke such a destructive act on the part of his former ally? Though a solid supporter of numerous so-called ad personam laws passed by Berlusconi to extricate himself from legal scrapes in the past, Fini decided this year that enough was enough.
The Italian justice system is in a deplorable state: cases creep ever more slowly through the courts. Berlusconi's answer to this, in the "reform" promised in his five-point programme, was to reduce yet further the time frame of the statute of limitations. This would have the effect of killing off thousands of cases that are already under way - including, by a strange coincidence, the three that currently threaten him.
One is the case in which David Mills, the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail by a Milan court for taking a bribe. The conviction was annulled on appeal thanks to the statute of limitations, but magistrates in Milan are bent on prosecuting Berlusconi for giving the bribe unless he can find a legal way to stop them. Two other cases pending concern alleged tax evasion by Berlusconi and his son Pier Silvio, and the sale and purchase of rights to American TV programmes by Berlusconi's companies.
For all his trickery, Berlusconi is cornered. If he tries to get his justice bill through in the form he wants it, he risks losing his majority in a final way and being forced into fresh elections, which he could easily lose, as his nationwide support has slumped to less than 30 per cent. If he concedes to Fini and removes clauses from the justice bill which, in Fini's view, are designed to protect the PM alone rather than for any common good, there will be nothing to prevent the magistrates from pouncing on him. The endgame approaches.
The spectacle is increasingly gruesome, but it is absorbing, because Berlusconi is obviously no ordinary politician. He came to power in a way and by means quite unknown before in western Europe. He created his party from scratch in a few months, practically as a division of his business empire, and sold it to the public like soap powder. He has become the defining figure in Italian public life of the past 16 years partly on account of his formidable intelligence and the force of his personality, but more particularly because of his vast wealth and his willingness to use it for political ends, as well as his control of large sections of the mass media.
He came to power in May 1994 in the shadow of the biggest bribery scandal in postwar Italian history, which led to the collapse of the major political parties in a quagmire of corruption charges. Berlusconi's patron, the Italian Socialist Party leader and former prime minister Bettino Craxi, fled to Tunisia rather than face prosecution. While merely a businessman, Berlusconi was of little interest to the corruption prosecutors.
His decision to launch himself into politics, after a high-profile career in property and commercial television, was provoked by the financial ills of his businesses and a left-wing threat to close down his TV channels. But once he had formed his first party, Forza Italia ("Forward Italy"), in December 1993, the prosecutors found a host of ambiguous deals to investigate, including a payment of 23 billion lire, the equivalent of more than £10m, to Craxi. It was the single largest bribe ever paid to an Italian politician. Berlusconi was convicted in that case but the conviction was quashed because of the statute of limitations. The prosecutors have been on his tail ever since.
There is no likelihood of the prime minister going quietly or giving way gracefully. "He's very much a fighter," says James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University of Rome. "If his back was against the wall, he would fight fair and foul all the way through, using all his money and his media to do so. I don't think it will come down to machine-guns inside Palazzo Grazioli [Berlusconi's Rome residence] but he will fight more than Craxi did. In a sense he is even more arrogant."
We have had several foretastes of the lengths to which Berlusconi will go to hold on to power. When he lost the general election to Romano Prodi by a small majority in 2006, he insisted week after week that he had been robbed and refused to concede victory. The previous year, to make his own victory more probable, he had passed a new election law, purpose-built to make it harder for the opposition to get a majority in the Senate - a law that contributed to the defeat of Prodi's centre-left coalition less than two years later.
Another glimpse of the measures he is prepared to use has emerged in his dealings with the Catholic Church and with Fini during the past two years. When a Catholic daily newspaper, Avvenire, began criticising Berlusconi's personal morality after the exposure of his flings with hookers and starlets, Vittorio Feltri, who edits Il Giornale, the paper owned by Berlusconi's brother, Paolo, published charges that Avvenire's editor was a closet homosexual who had harassed the wife of his gay lover. The allegations turned out to be pure invention, but by then the editor had resigned.
When Fini had his rift with Berlusconi in the spring, Feltri again went on the offensive. He dug up claims that Fini's old party, the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), had sold a small flat in Monte Carlo to Fini's brother-in-law on the quiet for a knock-down sum. This "scandal", which in Britain might merit a down-page paragraph in Private Eye's HP Sauce section, was the front-page splash in Il Giornale and ran throughout the summer.
The facts of the matter are yet to be clarified, but their pettiness is staggering. "This was a flat worth €300,000," as Curzio Maltese, a columnist on La Repubblica newspaper, points out. "Put that up against the annual bill of €60bn [£53bn], which, according to the estimates of the court of accounts, Italians have to foot every year for corruption, and it's obvious that it is a trifling matter."
Fini was robust enough to brush off the charges, which seem to have done him little harm, but these incidents are a warning to Berlusconi's enemies, actual and potential, of the depths to which he is prepared to sink to defend his position.
If Berlusconi was of a mind to decamp, he could choose between the hospitality of his friends Putin, Gaddafi and perhaps Blair, to whom, as we now know, he donated at least nine watches. He has splendid homes abroad, including one in the Bahamas. Yet if he stays and loses the next election, the magistrates will be knocking on his door. He will not in fact go to jail - he prudently brought in a law exempting from prison those aged 70 and above convicted of white-collar crimes - but he would face trial, conviction and dishonour.
Silvio Berlusconi was born into an average, middle-class family in Milan. His father worked in a bank and his mother was a housewife. He showed his flair for business while still at school, earning pocket money by doing the homework of more idle classmates. He paid his way through law school - his dissertation concerned advertising contracts - by working as a crooner on cruise ships. He then set himself up as a property developer; he was hugely successful and moved on to dominate the nascent Italian commercial television sector.
But, for all his wealth and media power, the truth of the matter about Berlusconi is that he is the overwhelmingly dominant figure in Italy's contemporary public life for the simple reason that he won three elections fair and square. He is the only prime minister in the republic's history to rule for a full five years. Two years ago he commanded the biggest majority in Italian political history. How has he done it?
Maltese, author of a book on Berlusconi entitled La Bolla ("the bubble"), published last year, has a persuasive explanation. "Berlusconi's popularity derives from a secret pact with the electorate," he says. "Every time he comes to power, the pressure on the Fisco [Italy's equivalent of the Inland Revenue] to go after tax evaders diminishes. Berlusconi always promises lower taxes but he never delivers them. Tax evasion in Italy is twice the European average, and people are aware that the only way to reduce taxes would be to go after tax evaders. But he never does this."
Ivan Scalfarotto worked in banks in London and Moscow before returning to Italy in 2009, and throwing himself into politics. He was appointed vice-president of the Democratic Party, the main grouping of the centre left. He sees in Italy's reactionary sexual attitudes one malign consequence of Berlusconi's long hegemony. "There is still no legislation for unmarried couples, there is no stigma against homophobia, and sexism is still rampant," he tells me. "Last month a young woman writer, Silvia Avallone, was awarded a literary prize on television, and as she came up to collect it the presenter said: 'What a wonderful décolletage! Cameraman, get a good shot of her breasts . . .' That was par for the course."
The political system, he says, is dominated by the old - those such as Berlusconi, who were born in the 1930s. "Berlusconi thinks he's eternal. It is the duty of the political class to prepare for the future, but they give it no thought: they are only interested in the present. They are like Louis XV: 'Après moi, le déluge.'"
Some leading Italian commentators believe Berlusconi can go on. "If there is an election in six months, he could win again," the historian and commentator Ernesto Galli della Loggia says. "He could be around for several more years, because there is no capable opposition." But Maltese believes the deluge is on the way. "The end of Berlusconi is approaching," he says. "The public debt is much less under control than they try to tell us. Berlusconi has backed vast infrastructure projects, like the bridge over the Strait of Messina to Sicily, which will never be built - but in the meantime the infrastructure of the nation is crumbling and there are ruptures every day.
“Today we are in a crisis very similar to that of the early 1990s: then, as now, the thousands of small and medium-sized companies that are the bedrock of the Italian economy, and which live on exports, are suffering gravely. Unemployment is soaring."
The trouble is, there is no plausible alternative to Berlusconi. Lega Nord (the Northern League), the xenophobic and secessionist party that is his closest ally, is doing better than any other, but only in northern Italy. Fini, on the other hand, has little appeal in the north, so although he spent long years as Berlusconi's understudy, he cannot draw from his ex-boss's nationwide vote bank. Meanwhile, the centre left, the only bloc whose mass support rivals Berlusconi's, is in disarray, with public infighting breaking out among its leaders, all of them ageing apparatchiks.
“Berlusconi has aged badly in the last year," Maltese says. "The beginning of the end, in my view, was the divorce from Veronica. It was a sign that he had begun to lose the plot, and that his delirium of omnipotence was advancing. He has always been very shrewd at estimating the support of his allies and rivals but he badly underestimated Fini's strength. Yet the problem is, the fall of Berlusconi will lead to the fall of what we call the Second Republic, the system in place since 1993.
“The two main parties - Berlusconi's People of Freedom [Il Popola della Libertà, his new party, founded in 2009] and the Democratic Party - were both born old, with old people running them; with no project and no idea other than to keep going as long as possible. So, we are at a very dangerous point: if Berlusconi falls there will be a political vacuum."
For Maltese, the fundamental problem is the attitude of the people to their rulers. "We are much more monarchical than the British," he says. "The attitude of Italians towards their government is much more the attitude of subjects than citizens. We are now in the reign of Berlusconi. Prodi, a former Christian Democrat with no present party allegiance, failed because he was not a king. People are waiting for an alternative king to Berlusconi.
“The country is claustrophobic; it feels ever more shut in on itself, backward, shameful in its treatment of women, servile towards the Catholic Church, xenophobic."
In spite of all this, Maltese remains optimistic, because "opposition to these things is arising: the authoritarians always end up destroying themselves, as Mussolini did. They exaggerate their power and they end up provoking rebellion." There may be no coherent opposition in Italy, but for Maltese the signs of rebellion are everywhere. He points to the popularity of Nichi Vendola, the gay, Catholic communist who is president of the Apulia region in the far south. "He has brought a sense of liberation: the idea of having a declared homosexual as prime minister! We could be at the dawn of a huge rebellion."
Fresh air may be blowing up from the south, but it is unlikely that Vendola will succeed in making the jump from the provincial to the national stage. If Berlusconi is fatigued, he reflects in so many ways a nation that has forgotten how to recharge its batteries.
From the windows of my flat in central Milan, I look out on a smoggy scene of Austro-Hungarian-era tenements and ancient trams. A hundred and fifty years old next year, Italy the unified nation has always seemed less than the sum of its parts. Where its neighbours have functioning states, capable of self-renewal, Italy has a rusting apparatus that's good for little other than keeping an army of civil servants in easy work. The role of the prime minister, which the elderly Berlusconi fulfils pretty well even in these last days, is not to repair, scrap or replace it, but to hide it from view.
Peter Popham is writing a biography of the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi