Political showman and ex-PM Berlusconi dies

Brash billionaire and four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul and political showman whose financial and sexual scandals made him the most polarising figure in modern Italy, has died aged 86.

Jun 13, 2023, updated Jun 13, 2023
Photo: Vincenzo Izzo/SipauSA

Photo: Vincenzo Izzo/SipauSA

Berlusconi died on Monday at a hospital in Milan.

With an unassailable self-confidence and a sharp entrepreneurial spirit, Berlusconi created a business empire that at its peak stretched from construction to television, publishing, retailing and top flight soccer.

He used his wealth and media prowess to launch himself into politics in 1994, up-ending traditional parties in a way that another property mogul, Donald Trump, later did when he was elected US president in 2016.

Berlusconi’s many critics say he used his power primarily to protect his own business interests, pointing to Italy’s weak economic record, hidebound bureaucracy and unchecked corruption during his lengthy stints in government.

He himself said he only entered politics to halt the left.

“Politics was never my passion. It made me lose a lot of time and energy. If I entered the ring, it was just to prevent the communists from taking power,” he told Chi magazine in an interview to mark his 80th birthday in 2016.

Voters repeatedly bought into his can-do exuberance and Berlusconi survived a string of diplomatic gaffes and scandals, including allegations he had sex with an underage girl and hosted wild orgies.

But he was overwhelmed by the scale of Europe’s financial crisis in 2011 and had to resign as prime minister.

Fresh humiliation followed in the shape of a 2013 conviction for tax fraud, a verdict which meant he was temporarily barred from parliament and stripped of his cherished title, Il Cavaliere, or the Knight – a state decoration.

Under financial pressure, he sold his beloved AC Milan soccer team, whose success on the field had once mirrored his political triumphs, while his efforts to turn his media group into a pan-European broadcasting giant never really took off.

Defying the tide of time, Berlusconi campaigned ahead of a 2022 national election, but his famed sparkle had faded and his once predominant Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, riven with divisions, took barely eight per cent of the vote – its lowest ever score.

However, it was enough to secure a return to government as a junior partner in a rightist coalition, with Berlusconi himself winning a Senate seat, ending his parliamentary exile.

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As with his political party, so with his business empire, Berlusconi left no single heir apparent. Under Italian law, all five of his children will receive a share of his assets, while Forza Italia might struggle to survive without him at the helm.

Berlusconi was born into a modest family in northern Italy in 1936. After stints as a cruise ship crooner, he made his first fortune in real estate deals in Milan in the 1960s and 70s. Berlusconi constantly denied repeated accusations that he received Mafia money to underpin those initial investments.

Smothered by Italy’s red tape, it was almost impossible to get ahead without political patronage and when Berlusconi’s chief protector, Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, fled abroad to escape corruption charges, the magnate decided to go into politics himself, naming his party after a soccer chant.

Italians lapped up Berlusconi’s smiling reassurances that he knew how to fix the country, and within months they elected him prime minister and his controversy-plagued political career commenced in earnest.

On the international stage he cultivated a particularly close bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin – a friendship he defended even following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, drawing censure from across the political spectrum in the West.

On Berlusconi’s death, Putin described him as “a true friend. I have always sincerely admired his wisdom, his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions even in the most difficult situations.”

Berlusconi’s relations with European partners were often prickly, above all during the 2011 sovereign debt crisis when he was viewed as a liability.

A biography, My Way, written by Alan Friedman, said relations got so bad that the then-French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, refused to shake his hand.

Berlusconi’s often clownish personality and repeated plastic surgery hid a keen political mind and an almost uncanny talent for tapping into the fears and concerns of ordinary Italians.

But while he claimed to have no regrets, he did not have many allies.

“But when I come to think about it, I cannot recall the name of a single friend in politics,” he told Chi magazine in 2016.

-with AAP

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