The rich, the odd and the beautiful candidates for European parliament
Many have a hard time finding enthusiasm for the European parliament elections. But they should pay more attention to the colourful array of candidates on offer. From millionaires to machos, blue bloods to bombshells, next week's vote has it all.
Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and Italy's prime minister, wanted to line up some "fresh faces" for the 2009 European parliamentary elections. More specifically, he was thinking of showcasing a host of attractive young women, including professional showgirls and a participant on the Italian version of "Big Brother" known throughout the country for her skimpy outfits. As he saw it, these individuals would bring youth and glamour to his centre-right People of Freedom party. But then Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, got fed up with his flaunting of young femininity and publicly denounced both him and the "shamelessness of power." So, Berlusconi dropped the plan for running with a whole team of young women.
The only one to survive the cut was Barbara Matera. Blonde, well-proportioned and once a top "Miss Italia" contestant, the 27-year old star and TV presenter can be found in quite a few YouTube movies. She's also said to be refreshingly inexperienced in the world of politics.
That's something that can't be said for certain about Elena Basescu. This 28-year-old has already logged some hours in Brussels, as a trainee with a member of parliament from the party of her father, Traian Basescu, the president of Romania. Elena works as a model, has a reputation for being a party girl and, according to the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, is "known for a checkered love life." Thanks in part to her appearance - hip-length hair and a pouty mouth - the media likes to refer to her as the "Romanian Paris Hilton." In response to critics who say she doesn't have the intellectual firepower needed to represent her country in the European Parliament, her father counters that Elena is "much cleverer than people think."
Brains is not an issue when it comes to Rachida Dati, France's glamour-star addition to the candidates' list. Dati studied economics and law before working in the business world and a prosecutor's office. Her career took off in 2002, when she landed a job in the office of then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. When he was elected president, the tap on the shoulder came, and she became the justice minister.
Not everyone in the ministry of justice was happy about the choice. Shortly after Dati's arrival, the office manager and several other leading employees cleared their desks. And it would be quite a stretch to say that Dati - the Catholic-school-educated, 43-year-old beauty of North African descent - has done much to bring succour to the ailing French justice system. Any headlines she has garnered usually have more to do with high expenses and haughty appearances.
When Dati gave birth to a daughter on January 2, all of France was watching. Adding mystery to the event was the fact that Dati refused to identify the child's father, saying instead: "My private life is complicated." Now there is speculation in the French media that president Nicolas Sarkozy is hoping to get rid of the problematic politician - by shipping her off to Brussels.
There, Dati might just cross paths with Gabriele Pauli, who was once Germany's youngest district administrator. Pauli has been famous in Germany since 2007, when she publicly criticised Edmund Stoiber, then Bavaria's governor, and set in motion a chain of events that ended in his resignation as head of the Christian Social Union party, the Bavarian sister party to chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Pauli benefited from that run-in. Soon thereafter, her image was splashed across the cover of a magazine wrapped in the Bavarian flag, wearing latex gloves and a lusty expression. Now she's running as a candidate for the European Parliament for the Free Voters, a minor conservative party in Bavaria - her most difficult job yet.
It's not just strong women that are suddenly jostling for seats in the parliament, that little-loved though not completely obscure body that meets some weeks in Brussels and some in Strasbourg, France. The male candidates on the roster also include some colourful and dazzling figures. There's the 48-year-old Swede Christian Engström, the front-runner for the Pirate Party, which has been fighting to liberate the internet from government control and intervention. A verdict that imposed fines and prison sentences on the operators of the wildly successful Internet file-sharing site "Pirate Bay" made the Pirate Party popular. Founded in 2006 as a protest party, it has grown so strong that it's now the third-largest party in Sweden, according to polls. Engström should have no trouble making it to Brussels.
Once there, the Swedish mathematician might be able to have a chat with the 60-year-old Czech politician Vladimir Remek, for example, the first non-Russian cosmonaut in space. But starting up a conversation with his Nordic neighbour Ari Vatanen, from Finland, might prove a bit more challenging. A four-time winner of the Dakar Rally, the 57-year old Vatanen is a conservative Christian democrat known for his economy of words. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that the former Czech cosmonaut, the Swedish "pirate" and the Finnish rally driver will have much in common to discuss.
Vatanen might get along better with Emanuele Filiberto Umberto Reza Ciro René Maria di Savoia, the 36-year-old grandson of Italy's last king and prince of Venice and Piedmont. The heir to Italy's defunct throne is also running on a Christian democratic ticket, although in his case it's with one of the small parties carrying on the legacy of the once mighty "Democrazia Cristiana" party, which was brought down in the early 1990s by a wave of corruption allegations.
As Di Savoia boasted at a recent press conference, he speaks five languages, knows half of Europe's heads of state personally - and is related to the other half. And the leaders of his party are quick to confirm that he is "an extraordinary and very capable person."
Still, so far, the prince hasn't had the greatest success in his professional and political life. In fact, he seems to have had a bit of bad luck - as well as difficult moments - with some of his partners, friends and employees. One got entangled in a blackmail scandal involving young showgirls, another is being investigated for tax evasion and fraud, and a third was arrested on suspicion of being involved in mafia activities.
Similar troubles have dogged another would-be parliamentarian, George "Gigi" Becali. The 50-year-old Romanian entrepreneur, politician and owner of the Steaua Bucuresti football club recently spent two weeks in pre-trial custody. His five bodyguards are said to have tracked down three thieves who had stolen Becali's luxury car. Once found, the thieves were allegedly stuffed in the trunk of a car, driven off and beaten for hours.
Becali doesn't hail from a royal family like Italy's Di Savoia. Instead, he comes from a family of shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains and made his fortune in real estate. But, like the prince, Becali also feels he was born to rule. "I will be a firm and wise ruler," he announced when he unsuccessfully ran for president of Romania. Now - with the help of extreme right-wing slogans - he's fighting for a seat in the European Parliament. If he doesn't succeed in politics, Becali told a radio reporter, "maybe I'll dedicate myself to sheep again."
In comparison with Becali, even Slavi Binev falls short. The 43-year-old Bulgarian has owned discos and nightclubs. He and his business partners control companies involved in entertainment, construction and security. He employs 2,000 people and brings in millions. But, above all, Binev thrives on his reputation as an international Tae Kwon Do champion in the Balkans (1990) and Europe (1992). Binev's campaign slogan is "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." He was elected to the European parliament in 2007 with the radical nationalist Ataka Party - and he plans to stay.
Silvio Berlusconi is the only one who could possibly outshine the illustrious candidates emerging from Europe's wild east and high nobility. None of them can boast the wealth - or courtroom experience - of the 72-year-old Italian prime minister. And then there is his entertainment value, which is unsurpassed - and perhaps unsurpassable. For example, he recently narrowly escaped being put on trial for corruption thanks to an amendment passed by the Italian parliament, which just so happens to be controlled by his party. In recent weeks, the Italian media has been revealing new details on a daily basis about Berlusconi's - possibly long-standing - acquaintance with a beautiful young woman from Naples who only just turned 18. Berlusconi's wife of almost 30 years has now announced her plans to divorce him, saying she can't remain with a man who "consorts with minors."
And, as if there weren't already enough going on in his personal life and the country he runs, now Berlusconi also wants to be elected to the European parliament. He's been there once before, when you could still serve in both a national parliament and the European Parliament. But he didn't show up very often and served as more of a symbolic figure. This time around, it's more than likely that Berlusconi won't assume the seat that he will undoubtedly win. Instead, it's almost certain that he will resign his post after the election so as to make way for an alternate candidate to move up the list. It's all about the election, about assisting his chosen candidates, about lending them a voice through his unfathomable popularity in Italy. And it's also about helping out as many of them as possible - including the lovely Barbara Matera - to secure a seat in the European parliament.
Meanwhile Matera, if you believe the newspapers, is hard at work taking a crash course in politics.