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Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, 1936-2023

Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who has died at the age of 86, was a billionaire business tycoon turned politician who exploited his personal wealth, reputation and influence over the media to acquire and wield power in a manner that defied the conventions of western democracy. Like Donald Trump and others who came after him, he had millions of adoring supporters — and numerous critics outraged by what they considered his scandalous behaviour as a public figure and disregard for the law.

Berlusconi held the premiership for a total of nine years, making him the longest-serving prime minister of postwar Italy. For this reason he bears an inescapable, though not exclusive, responsibility for the national economic decline and sometimes deplorable standards of public life that coincided with his two decades at the very top of politics.

Berlusconi did not even launch his political career until January 1994, when he was 57 and best known as a sharp-witted entrepreneur who had made a fortune out of property development and the television industry.

A mere two months later, leading a political party that he had personally created and named Forza Italia (“Come on, Italy”) after a football fans’ chant, he profited from the collapse of Italy’s discredited political party system and swept to victory in the general election of March 1994.

A chaotic seven-month spell as prime minister ended with his resignation amid a judicial inquiry into his business affairs. However, Berlusconi bounced back in 2001 with another election triumph, followed by a five-year term as premier.

He won a third election victory in 2008, but he fell from power in 2011, at the height of the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis, in a manoeuvre orchestrated by his domestic and European opponents. Like the financial markets, they were deeply troubled by his refusal or inability to implement economic reforms necessary to avoid contagion from other stricken eurozone states.

Throughout these years, Italian prosecutors launched hundreds of investigations into his business affairs. They sought to convict him on charges ranging from tax fraud and false accounting to bribery of judges and illegal political party financing.

Until 2013 Berlusconi, who denounced his pursuers as leftwing conspirators, was never found definitively guilty in all his many trials. In that year, however, Italy’s highest court upheld his conviction for tax fraud, which prompted his expulsion from the Senate, parliament’s upper house.

On account of his age, Berlusconi did not serve the prison term to which he was sentenced, but performed a year of community service in an old people’s home near his sumptuous residence outside Milan.

In a separate case, Berlusconi was convicted in 2015 of bribing a senator to switch political parties, a criminal offence that had helped to bring down Romano Prodi’s centre-left government seven years earlier.

Despite his legal troubles and the decline of Forza Italia to a shadow of its former self, Berlusconi remained active in politics. He was elected, at the age of 82, to the European parliament in May 2019.

He backed the formation of a national unity government under former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi in February 2021, as the Covid pandemic struck Italy. But he joined his conservative allies and other politicians in pulling the plug on Draghi’s government in July 2022, a step that forced Italy into snap parliamentary elections.

The rightwing coalition that won the elections and formed the new government was dominated by Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party. The junior role that fell to Berlusconi and Forza Italia wounded his pride, and frictions were evident between him and Meloni, the new prime minister. Berlusconi’s occasional public outbursts expressing enthusiasm for Russian president Vladimir Putin and disdain for Ukraine were an embarrassment for Meloni, who was at pains to uphold Draghi’s policy of keeping Italy aligned with its western allies in support of Ukraine’s war of self-defence against Putin’s invasion.

By this time Berlusconi’s finances, like his political fortunes, were in decline, although Forbes magazine estimated shortly before his death that his net worth still amounted to about $7bn.

Berlusconi’s domination of Italian politics foreshadowed the rise in democracies of other rich businessmen who combined a rightwing message with defiance of the legal system, such as Trump, the former US president, and former Czech premier Andrej Babiš.

Yet Berlusconi’s record as prime minister was a disappointment, insofar as he failed to revive Italy’s stagnant economy and spent too much time passing laws to protect his business interests and obstruct the efforts of magistrates to put him on trial. Moreover, he never appeared to understand why his two roles as Italy’s most powerful commercial TV mogul and prime minister represented a glaring conflict of interests.

In foreign policy, he won the gratitude of George W Bush, the US president, for defying domestic public opinion and sending Italian troops to Iraq after the US-led invasion of March 2003. But he was often on bad terms with France and Germany, Italy’s closest allies in Europe. He caused astonishment in July 2003 when, in remarks to the European parliament, he likened Martin Schulz, a German legislator, to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

In his political career, Berlusconi, an affable and often amusing man in private, made several grotesque mistakes of this type. Even his friends acknowledged that he fitted no recognisable mould as a public figure. He amassed an impressive collection of figurines of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor whom he greatly admired and resembled in stature. He built himself an amphitheatre at his Sardinian villa.

“The truth is that Berlusconi is not a political animal,” Fedele Confalonieri, chairman of Mediaset, Berlusconi’s media company, said in 1994. “He’s a utopian. In another time and place he could have been an enlightened monarch. But as a democratic politician, he’s decidedly anomalous.”

The son of a bank employee, Berlusconi was born into a modest middle-class Milan family on September 29 1936. He was educated at a Roman Catholic boarding school where he displayed precocious entrepreneurial gifts by completing his classmates’ homework for a fee. He graduated in law from Milan university and, after a spell as a singer on cruise ships, went into business in the 1960s with a series of real estate projects that flourished in line with Italy’s then booming economy.

Some capital for these projects came from anonymous third parties in Switzerland, then as now a convenient destination for money flowing illegally out of Italy. Italian financial police launched an investigation in the 1970s but were unable to find evidence of wrongdoing.

At this time Berlusconi’s three main business partners were Confalonieri, Cesare Previti and Marcello Dell’Utri. Previti and Dell’Utri were instrumental in setting up Forza Italia, and both were subsequently convicted of crimes — the former for bribing judges in a case that involved Berlusconi’s Fininvest business empire, and the latter for collusion with the mafia.

Berlusconi’s name was also on a list of members of the secret P2 freemasonry lodge that served as a rallying point for anti-communist members of Italy’s secret services, armed forces and police as well as parliamentarians, bankers and businessmen. By the mid-1980s, Berlusconi had emerged as Italy’s leading commercial TV operator, partly by exploiting his friendship with Bettino Craxi, a socialist prime minister who later fled to Tunisia after being convicted of corruption.

Berlusconi’s combination of quiz shows, American films, cartoons and light programming for housewives, threaded with catchy advertisements and in evening prime time with scantily clad hostesses, proved a winning formula. It was a sharp contrast to the hitherto staid qualities of RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster.

Berlusconi might never have entered politics, had it not been for the scandals that erupted in 1992 and destroyed the Christian Democrat and Socialist parties by sparking judicial probes that revealed a political establishment and state administration riddled with corruption.

In a footballing metaphor typical of Berlusconi, whose love for the sport caused him to buy the AC Milan club in 1986 (he sold it to a Chinese-led consortium in 2017), he joked: “I heard that the game was getting dangerous, and that it was all being played in the two penalty areas, with the midfield being left desolately empty.”

His answer was to fill the gap on the centre-right with Forza Italia. Its election candidates were ordered to dress like smart salesmen and saleswomen. Beards, smoking and bad breath were banned.

Berlusconi’s 1994, 2001 and 2008 election victories demonstrated his flair for projecting himself as a rich, successful, ever optimistic genius who, in office, would deliver a miracle for the Italian people.

The reality was different, however. In 1994, trade unions forced him to back down from an attempted pensions reform, and he was placed under investigation for suspected corruption. His ruling coalition broke down when the populist Northern League, a wayward ally, pulled out. Berlusconi was compelled to resign.

His second government, formed after a crushing victory in Italy’s May 2001 election, should have been more effective, because he had the largest parliamentary majority of any Italian leader since the fall of fascism. Yet Berlusconi’s determination to stay firm friends with the Northern League alienated the other two parties in his centre-right coalition.

The government was unable, or unwilling, to pass almost any of the liberal economic reforms that Berlusconi had promised Italy. On the other hand, the government applied itself enthusiastically to the task of passing bills to protect Berlusconi from prosecution and advance his business interests.

Berlusconi’s 2008-2011 premiership degenerated into squalid farce amid revelations of “bunga bunga” sex parties at his villa near Milan and dalliances with young women a quarter his age. He was convicted, but later exonerated, of charges that he had paid for sex with a teenage Moroccan-born belly-dancer, known by her stage name as “Ruby the heart-stealer”. Veronica Lario, his second wife, divorced him. (She is the mother of three of Berlusconi’s children. With his first wife, Carla Dall’Oglio, he had two children.)

Most serious was Berlusconi’s failure in 2011, as the eurozone crisis intensified, to enact economic reforms and adopt fiscal measures sufficiently rigorous to blunt financial market pressures on Italian sovereign bonds. Fearful that Italy was too big to bail out, and that an Italian crisis would destroy Europe’s monetary union, other eurozone governments and the ECB were desperate to see the back of Berlusconi.

So, too, were Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s president, and a rising number of domestic critics of Berlusconi, including many in his own party. Having lost his parliamentary majority, he resigned in November and was replaced by Mario Monti, a former EU commissioner handpicked by Napolitano to the warm approval of Italy’s eurozone partners.

If Berlusconi’s economic legacy left much to be desired, his political legacy would prove more enduring. As he recognised, Italy acquired in Matteo Renzi, who became prime minister in 2014, a leader whose political style — boundless self-confidence and charm matched with a strong emphasis on public image — owed much to the brand of politics invented by Berlusconi.

Initially, the space on the Italian right created by Forza Italia’s decline was filled by the anti-immigrant nationalism of Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right League. More recently, it has been Meloni who some see as Berlusconi’s political heir, given her adept use of social media, her skill at connecting with voters and, not least, the fact that much of her government programme, such as tax breaks and the proposed construction of a bridge between Sicily and the Italian mainland, draws on policies set out under Berlusconi’s coalitions.

Throughout his career, Berlusconi frequently conveyed the impression in his words and deeds that he did not fundamentally care about the rule of law. He offended Italy’s political left by defending the 1922-43 rule of Benito Mussolini and suggesting, quite wrongly, that the fascist dictator had not treated his enemies badly. He also caused an uproar by attacking magistrates as “anthropologically different from the rest of the human race”. Above all, critics saw him as a dangerous man who had used his wealth to buy power and manipulate the political and judicial processes.

For his part, Berlusconi saw himself both as a self-made man who had never lost the common touch, and as a crusader for the values of freedom and free-market competition that defined western civilisation. Berlusconi aroused passionate claims in his support and against himself. His trajectory across modern Italian history was fast, mysterious and never dull; but if he changed Italy more than his opponents wanted, they are doubtless relieved that he changed it less than he himself would have liked.

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Rome

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