Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s ex-Prime Minister and media mogul, dies at 86

Silvio Berlusconi served as the Italian Prime Minister in 1994-1995, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011

June 12, 2023 02:25 pm | Updated 07:57 pm IST - MILAN

Forza Italia leader and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. File

Forza Italia leader and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

Silvio Berlusconi, the boastful billionaire media mogul who was Italy's longest-serving premier despite scandals over his sex-fueled parties and allegations of corruption, died on Monday. He was 86.

Supporters applauded as his body arrived at his villa outside Milan from the city's San Raffaele Hospital, where he had been treated for chronic leukaemia. A state funeral will be held on Wednesday in the city's Duomo cathedral, according to the Milan Archdiocese.

A one-time cruise ship crooner, Mr. Berlusconi used his television networks and immense wealth to launch his long political career, inspiring both loyalty and loathing.

To admirers, the three-time premier was a capable and charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage. To critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy by wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses.

His Forza Italia political party was a coalition partner with current Premier Giorgia Meloni, a far-right leader who came to power last year, although he held no position in the government.

His friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at odds with Ms. Meloni, a staunch supporter of Ukraine. On his 86th birthday, while the war raged, Mr. Putin sent Mr. Berlusconi best wishes and vodka, and the Italian boasted he returned the favour by sending back Italian wine.

When former U.S. President Donald Trump launched his political career, many drew comparisons to Mr. Berlusconi, noting they both had long business careers, sought to upend the existing political order, and grabbed attention for their over-the-top personalities and lavish lifestyles.

Ms. Meloni remembered Mr. Berlusconi as “above all as a fighter.”

“He was a man who had never been afraid to defend his beliefs. And it was exactly that courage and determination that made him one of the most influential men in the history of Italy,” Ms. Meloni said on Italian TV.

Former Premier Matteo Renzi recalled Mr. Berlusconi’s divisive legacy on Twitter. “Silvio Berlusconi made history in this country. Many loved him, many hated him. All must recognise that his impact on political life, but also economics, sports and television, has been without precedence."

Mr. Putin sent a telegram of condolence, hailing Mr. Berlusconi as a “patriarch” of Italian politics and a true patriot.

As Mr. Berlusconi aged, some derided his perpetual tan, hair transplants and live-in girlfriends who were decades younger. For many years, however, Mr. Berlusconi seemed untouchable despite the personal scandals.

Criminal cases were launched but ended in dismissals when statutes of limitations ran out in Italy's slow-moving justice system, or he was victorious on appeal. Investigations targeted the tycoon's steamy so-called “bunga bunga” parties involving young women and minors, or his businesses, which included the soccer team AC Milan, the country's three biggest private TV networks, magazines and a daily newspaper, and advertising and film companies.

Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in key dates
Key dates in the life and career of Italy’s scandal-tainted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose death was announced on June 12.
September 29, 1936: Born in Milan.
1961: Starts his real estate career, building residential districts on the outskirts of Milan.
1978: Founds the Fininvest holding company, comprising media, financial services, publishing and, from 1986 to 2017, the Milan AC football club.
1994: Creates that “Forza Italia” (Go Italy) movement, which wins legislative elections, giving him his first stint as Prime Minister from May to December.
1996: Goes on trial for the first time on corruption charges and is sentenced to 16 months in prison for false accounting, but acquitted on appeal.
2001: Starts a second stint as Prime Minister after his right-wing alliance wins the general election, serving for five years.
2008: After a new electoral win, returns as Prime Minister until 2011, resigning in the midst of a national financial crisis that risks bringing down the entire eurozone.
2013: Sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud through his Mediaset media empire, and is stripped of his seat in the Senate. The sentence is commuted to one year of community service, which he serves in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.
2015: Acquitted on appeal after a 2013 conviction for paying for sex with a teenage prostitute and abuse of power in the “Rubygate” or “bunga bunga” affair.
2019: Wins a seat in the European Parliament, becoming the assembly’s oldest MEP at age 82.
2020: Spends 11 days in hospital with COVID-19, calling the experience “perhaps the most difficult ordeal” of his life.
2022: Campaigns behind the scenes to become Italy’s President but withdraws before voting begins in parliament. In September’s general election he wins a seat in the Senate, making a triumphant return to politics.
February 2023: The “bunga bunga” scandal comes to an end when an Italian court acquits him of charges.
April 5, 2023: Admitted to intensive care at a Milan hospital for heart problems. The next day, doctors announce he is suffering from leukaemia and a lung infection.
May 19: Discharged from hospital after more than six weeks of treatment, saying, “I won again”.
June 9: Hospitalised for what his doctors say are “routine checks” related to his leukaemia.
(via AFP)

Only one led to a conviction that stuck — a tax fraud case stemming from a sale of movie rights in his business empire. The conviction was upheld in 2013 by Italy's top criminal court, but he was spared prison because of his age, 76, and was ordered to do community service by assisting Alzheimer’s patients.

He still was stripped of his Senate seat and banned from running or holding public office for six years, under anti-corruption laws.

He stayed at the helm of Forza Italia, the centre-right party he created when he entered politics in the 1990s and named for a soccer cheer, “Let's go, Italy.” With no groomed successor in sight, voters started to desert it.

He eventually held office again — elected to the European Parliament at age 82 and then last year to the Italian Senate.

Mr. Berlusconi’s party was eclipsed as the dominant force on Italy’s political right: first by the League, led by anti-migrant populist Matteo Salvini, then by Ms. Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, with its roots in neo-fascism. Following elections in 2022, Ms. Meloni formed a governing coalition with their help.

Mr. Berlusconi lost his standing as Italy’s richest man, although his sprawling media holdings and luxury real estate still left him a billionaire several times over.

In 2013, guests at one of his parties included an underage Moroccan dancer whom prosecutors alleged had sex with Berlusconi in exchange for cash and jewelry. After a trial spiced by lurid details, a Milan court initially convicted Berlusconi of paying for sex with a minor and using his office to try to cover it up. Both denied having sex with each other, and he was eventually acquitted.

The Catholic Church, at times sympathetic to his conservative politics, was scandalised by his antics, and his wife of nearly 20 years divorced him, but Berlusconi was unapologetic, declaring: “I’m no saint.”

Pope Francis sent a telegram of condolence, recalling him as a “protagonist of Italian political life, who carried out his public responsibilities with an energetic temperament.”

Berlusconi insisted that voters were impressed by his brashness.

“The majority of Italians in their hearts would like to be like me and see themselves in me and in how I behave,” he said in 2009, during his third and final stint as premier.

In a display that spoke to the depth of feeling his most fervent supporters had for him, anchors at his private Mediaset network choked up as they announced his death Monday.

Angela Dravi, who worked as a seamstress for Berlusconi and joined a few dozen supporters gathered outside his villa, said she has a bathrobe that the ex-premier discarded and wears it to this day to be close to him. “I was always there for him. I have always been at the rallies, at the gatherings. I love him as a person," she said.

Berlusconi's second term, from 2001-06, was perhaps his golden era, when he became Italy’s longest-serving head of government and boosted its global profile through his friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush. Bucking widespread sentiment at home and in Europe, Berlusconi backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

As a businessman who knew the power of images, Berlusconi introduced U.S.-style political campaigns — with big party conventions and slick advertising — that broke with the gray world of Italian politics, in which voters essentially chose parties and not candidates. His rivals had to adapt.

Berlusconi saw himself as Italy's saviour from what he described as the Communist menace — years after the Berlin Wall fell. From the start of his political career in 1994, he portrayed himself as the target of a judiciary he described as full of leftist sympathisers. He always proclaimed his innocence.

When the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement gained strength, Berlusconi branded it as a menace worse than Communism.

His close friendship with longtime Socialist leader and former Premier Bettino Craxi was widely credited for helping him become a media baron. Still, Berlusconi billed himself as a self-made man, saying, “My formula for success is to be found in four words: work, work and work.”

He boasted of his libido and entertained friends and world leaders at his villas. At one party, newspapers reported the women were dressed as “little Santas.” At another, photos showed topless women and a naked man lounging poolside.

“I love life! I love women!” an unrepentant Berlusconi said in 2010.

He occasionally selected TV starlets for posts in his Forza Italia party. “If I weren’t married, I would marry you immediately,” Berlusconi reportedly said in 2007 to Mara Carfagna, who later became a Cabinet minister. Berlusconi’s then-wife publicly demanded an apology.

Berlusconi was nicknamed “Papi” — or “Daddy” — by an aspiring model whose 18th birthday bash he attended, also to his wife’s irritation. Later, self-described escort Patrizia D’Addario said she spent the night with him on the evening that Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in 2008.

From his cruise ship entertainer days, Berlusconi loved to compose and sing Neapolitan songs. Like millions of Italians, he had a passion for soccer, and often was in the stands at AC Milan.

He delighted in flouting political etiquette. He sported a bandanna when hosting British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his estate on the Emerald Coast of Sardinia, and it was later revealed he was concealing hair transplants. He posed for photos at international summits making an Italian gesture — which can be offensive or superstitious, depending on circumstances — in which the index and pinkie fingers are extended like horns.

He stirred anger after September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States by claiming Western civilisation was superior to Islam.

When criticised in 2003 at the European Parliament by a German lawmaker, Berlusconi likened his adversary to a concentration camp guard. Years later, he drew outrage when he compared his family's legal woes to what Jews must have encountered in Nazi Germany.

Berlusconi was born in Milan on Sept. 29, 1936, the son of a middle-class banker. He earned a law degree, writing his thesis on advertising. He started a construction company at 25 and built apartment complexes for middle-class families on Milan's outskirts, part of a postwar boom.

But his astronomical wealth came from the media. In the late 1970s and 1980s, he circumvented Italy's state TV monopoly RAI by creating a de facto network in which local stations all showed the same programming. RAI and his Mediaset accounted for about 90% of the national market in 2006.

When the “Clean Hands” corruption scandals of the 1990s decimated the political establishment that had dominated postwar Italy, Berlusconi filled the void, founding Forza Italia in 1994.

His first government, also in 1994, collapsed after eight months when an ally who led an anti-immigrant party yanked support. But aided by an aggressive campaign that included mass mailings of glossy magazines recounting his success story, Berlusconi swept to victory in 2001.

Shuffling his Cabinet occasionally, he stayed in power for five years, setting a record for government longevity in Italy. It wasn't easy.

A Group of Eight summit he hosted in Genoa in 2001 was marred by violent anti-globalisation demonstrations and the death of a protester shot by a police officer. Berlusconi faced fierce domestic opposition and alienated some allies by sending 3,000 troops to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For a time, Italy was the third-largest contingent in the U.S. coalition.

At home, he constantly faced accusations of sponsoring laws aimed at protecting himself or his businesses, but he insisted he always acted in the interest of all Italians. Legislation passed when he was premier allowing officeholders to own media businesses but not run them was deemed by his critics to be tailor made for Berlusconi.

An admirer of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Berlusconi passed reforms that partially liberalised the labour and pension systems, among Europe’s most inflexible. He also was chummy with Putin, who stayed at his Sardinian estate, and he visited the Russian leader, notably going to Crimea after Moscow illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014.

In 2006, as Italy was ridiculed as “the sick man of Europe,” with its economy mired in zero growth and its budget deficit rising, Berlusconi narrowly lost the general election to center-left leader Romano Prodi, who had been president of the European Union Commission.

In 2008, he bounced back for what would be his final term as premier. It ended abruptly in 2011, when financial markets lost faith in his ability to keep Italy from succumbing to the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis. To the relief of economic powerhouse Germany, Berlusconi reluctantly stepped down.

Health concerns dogged him over the years. He recently spent more than a month in the hospital with a lung infection stemming from chronic leukaemia. He also suffered from heart ailments, prostate cancer and was hospitalised for COVID-19 in 2020.

During a political rally in 2009, a man threw a souvenir statuette of Milan’s cathedral at Berlusconi, fracturing his nose and cracking two teeth.

Berlusconi was first married in 1965 to Carla Dall’Oglio, and their two children, Marina and Piersilvio, were groomed to hold top positions in his business empire. He married his second wife, Veronica Lario, in 1990, and they had three children, Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi.

They also divorced, and at the time of his death he was in a relationship with Marta Fascina, 33, who was elected to parliament last year for his party.

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