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Silvio Berlusconi: The Showman Who Upended Italian Politics and Culture

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Silvio Berlusconi: The Showman Who Upended Italian Politics and Culture

Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy and one of the most influential figures in the country’s history, has died at the age of 86.

He was a media tycoon, a businessman, a politician, and a showman who introduced sex and glamour to Italian TV and then brought the same formula to politics, dominating the country for decades.

Berlusconi rose from humble beginnings to become Italy’s richest person and the owner of a vast media empire that included television channels, newspapers, magazines, and a football club. He also founded his own political party, Forza Italia (Go Italy!), and served as prime minister for a total of nine years, making him the longest-serving leader in Italy’s post-war era.

He was known for his charisma, his populism, his lavish lifestyle, and his controversial alliances with foreign leaders such as Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He also faced numerous legal battles over charges of corruption, tax fraud, bribery, and sex crimes. He was convicted of some of these offenses but managed to avoid jail time by appealing or benefiting from amnesty laws.

Berlusconi remained active in politics until his death, despite suffering from various health problems. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2023 and contracted coronavirus in 2020. He was also hospitalized several times for heart issues and underwent cosmetic surgery to maintain his youthful appearance.

In this blog post, we will explore the life and legacy of Silvio Berlusconi, the showman who upended Italian politics and culture.

Early Life And Career

Berlusconi was born on September 29, 1936, in Milan, Italy. His father was a bank employee and his mother was a housewife. He showed an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age, selling vacuum cleaners and photographs as a teenager. He graduated from the University of Milan with a degree in law in 1961.

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He started his career as a real-estate developer, building residential complexes in Milan and other cities. He amassed a considerable fortune by the 1970s and expanded his business interests to other sectors. He created the cable television firm Telemilano in 1974 and four years later mounted the first direct challenge to the national television monopoly.

In 1980 he established Canale 5, Italy’s first commercial television network, and by the end of the decade Berlusconi-created stations dominated Italian airwaves. He also diversified his business holdings, acquiring department stores, movie theatres, publishing companies, and the AC Milan football team.

He consolidated his empire under the umbrella of the Fininvest holding company, a vast conglomerate that grew to control more than 150 businesses.

First Term As Prime Minister

Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s, after building up a media and real estate business empire. He was viewed as a breath of fresh air after a period of corruption and scandal that rocked the Italian political establishment.

He pitched himself as a modern Italian success story, and backed by his TV stations and newspapers, he secured his first election victory in 1994 with his new movement, Forza Italia (Go Italy!), named after a football chant.

He formed a coalition government with two other right-wing parties: the Lega Nord (Northern League), which advocated greater autonomy for northern regions; and the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), which emerged from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

He lasted as prime minister for only nine months, but his tenure proved turbulent. Shortly after he took office in May 1994, officials launched a corruption investigation into his business empire, and disputes within the governing coalition culminated in the Lega Nord’s defection in December.

Facing a no-confidence vote, Berlusconi announced his resignation on December 22, 1994, but stayed on in a caretaker capacity until January 1995. He was later convicted of fraud and corruption but appealed successfully against these verdicts.

Second Term As Prime Minister

Berlusconi bounced back with another election win in 2001 after a populist campaign promising jobs and economic growth. He signed a “Contract with Italians” live on television, pledging to lower taxes, reform the justice system, create more public works projects, and improve public services.

He served until 2006, and returned again as prime minister between 2008 and 2011, making him the longest-serving prime minister of Italy’s post-war history.

He was the leader of the centre-right party Forza Italia from 1994 to 2009, and its successor party The People of Freedom from 2009 to 2013. He led the revived Forza Italia from 2013 to 2023.

Berlusconi was the senior G8 leader from 2009 until 2011, and he held the record for hosting G8 summits (having hosted three summits in Italy).

He was also a prominent figure in the European Union, often clashing with other leaders over economic and foreign policy issues. He was a staunch supporter of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite widespread opposition in Italy and Europe.

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Scandals And Controversies

Throughout his time in office, Berlusconi was dogged by legal troubles and personal scandals that tarnished his image and reputation. He spent much of his life embroiled in legal action, and the cases around his notorious “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, attended by young girls including underage escorts, were only wrapped up in February 2023.

He was accused of paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl known as Ruby, and of abusing his power to cover up the affair. He denied any wrongdoing and claimed he was the victim of a political witch-hunt. He was initially convicted of both charges in 2013, but was later acquitted on appeal.

He also faced allegations of bribing judges, witnesses, and politicians; evading taxes; embezzling funds; and influencing the media. He was convicted of some of these charges but managed to avoid prison sentences by appealing, benefiting from statute of limitations, or receiving presidential pardons.

He was also long suspected of links to the mafia, but strongly denied it. He claimed that he had been targeted by left-wing prosecutors and judges who were biased against him and wanted to destroy his political career.

Berlusconi also sparked controversy with his outspoken and often offensive remarks, which often insulted other leaders, women, minorities, and the judiciary. He made jokes about Barack Obama’s skin colour, Angela Merkel’s appearance, his own sexual prowess, and the Holocaust. He also compared himself to Napoleon, Jesus Christ, and Julius Caesar.

Legacy And Death

Despite his legal woes and scandals, Berlusconi remained popular among many Italians who admired his charisma, his optimism, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his anti-establishment stance. He also appealed to conservative voters who shared his views on immigration, security, family values, and national identity.

He was credited with modernizing Italian television and introducing commercial competition to the media sector. He also invested heavily in Italian football and turned AC Milan into one of the most successful clubs in Europe.

He was criticized for undermining Italian democracy and institutions by using his media power and political influence to serve his personal interests. He was also blamed for worsening Italy’s economic situation by failing to implement structural reforms and fiscal discipline.

He was forced to quit as prime minister in 2011 as debt-laden Italy came under intense pressure during the financial crisis. He was succeeded by Mario Monti, a technocrat who introduced austerity measures to restore market confidence.

Berlusconi continued to play a role in Italian politics as a senator and a partner in Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government. He also remained president of his Forza Italia party, a junior partner in Meloni’s coalition.

He died on June 12, 2023, after a long battle with leukaemia and a lung infection. He had been hospitalized for 11 days in September 2020 after contracting coronavirus, describing it as “perhaps the most difficult ordeal of my life”.

He is survived by his five children and his third wife, Francesca Pascale, whom he married in 2022.

 

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