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Italy’s oligarch: Berlusconi’s death marks the end of an era

Abroad he was synonymous with sex parties, but at home the billionaire and former PM remained a powerful political force

To the outside world Silvio Berlusconi was a figure of fun, defined by the lurid scandals that beset his career in politics: his long court battles and conviction for tax fraud, the sex parties at his Milan villa, his crude comments on the international stage.

However colourful it all seemed, back in Italy, the divisive billionaire and four-time prime minister was no joke.

Berlusconi, who died aged 86 on Monday after a battle with leukaemia, remained a powerful dealmaker behind the scenes of Italian politics into the final years of his life, as well as a media mogul whose sprawling wealth and business interests created an influential system of patronage that shaped Italian society.

Berlusconi’s charisma never translated overseas. But to a loyal support base, he remained the golden boy who had promised to unlock the country’s entrepreneurial potential and vanquish a discredited political class.


For critics, the death of the man nicknamed “The Knight” begins a process of reckoning with the long dominance of someone who was seen by his opponents as having represented, and fostered, some of Italy’s worst flaws.

Born to a middle-class Milan family in 1936, Berlusconi launched into business at a time of economic boom in Italy. He began to amass serious wealth when he bought cheap farmland for an innovative housing development under the flight path of Milan’s airport, which then soared in value when the aeroplanes were rerouted.

He used his millions to develop a network of local television stations in the 1970s and 1980s, challenging the monopoly of state broadcaster RAI and introducing crowd-pleasing variety shows adorned with scantily-clad young women.

How much of his precipitous early success was self-made and how much was owed to networking has been debated for decades.

But he is remembered for having a genuine knack for salesmanship and for the mantras he drilled into employees from his experience of door-to-door sales and as a cruise ship entertainer: to make oneself beloved, to bring joy into the day of the grumpiest client.

In 1986 he bought football club AC Milan, rescuing it from near-bankruptcy and turning around its fortunes, acquiring an asset that was to become central to his image as a politician.

In the early 1990s, Italy was convulsed by a vast corruption scandal called “mani pulite” or “clean hands”, which implicated hundreds of leading figures in bribery and led to the extinction of various political parties and of Italy’s First Republic.

Using a tactic that foreshadowed how political upstarts would directly cultivate an audience in the social media age, Berlusconi used his television networks to launch himself into national politics.

In a dramatic presidential-style address from his office that was broadcast across his television networks, Berlusconi gravely announced that he was resigning from roles at his companies in order to “take to the pitch” with a political party to be called Forza Italia, a sports cry akin to “Come on, Ireland”.

Exploits with women were a point of pride to the mogul, and he remained doted upon by housewives and male admirers throughout a succession of scandals and much younger girlfriends

He promised to revive Italy’s postwar economic miracle, to put families and the individual first, to protect Italy from communism and to oust a grey and obsolete political class. “You hear them talking, you watch their TV shows paid by the state, you read their press. They don’t believe in anything any more,” he told viewers.

Berlusconi swept to power two months later, becoming the first Italian prime minister to have held no prior political office.

In the following decades, Berlusconi was to serve as prime minister four times, typically by creating coalitions with the once-taboo hard-right and far-right, a strategy with an enduring legacy in Italian politics. When pressed, Berlusconi would offer a sunny interpretation of dictator Benito Mussolini, the political father of the allies he worked with.

Current prime minister Giorgia Meloni held her first government position as minister for youth in a Berlusconi cabinet in 2008. In a video tribute after his death, Meloni recalled him as “a fighter”, recalled their shared battles, and described him as “one of the most influential men in the history of Italy”.

In a distorted reflection of the media dominance he had criticised when entering politics, Berlusconi’s own near-monopolistic presence across the media landscape in Italy during his political career led to NGO Freedom House downgrading Italy’s assessment for press freedom.

Exploits with women were a point of pride to the mogul, and he remained doted upon by housewives and male admirers throughout a succession of scandals and much younger girlfriends.

Meanwhile, a generation of girls grew up seeing highly sexualised non-speaking roles on television as the most visible way to advance in life, as he elevated showgirls into his entourage along with former employees and schoolfriends.

On the international stage, he alienated other European leaders with quips that carried little charm outside Italy.

But he maintained warm relations with both the United States and Russia, hosting Vladimir Putin for stays at his villa. He blamed Ukraine’s leadership for causing the invasion last year; the Russian president’s note of condolence on the death of Berlusconi described him as “a dear person, a true friend”.

Berlusconi’s political downfall came in November 2011, when months of revelations about “bunga bunga” sex parties at his villa coincided with economic turmoil. Berlusconi became the figurehead blamed for misgovernance and Italy’s unmanageable public debt, accused of having done little in office but try to preserve his own power.

As its borrowing costs spiralled, leading to fears of a default in the euro zone’s third-largest economy that could tear the currency apart, Berlusconi resigned.

Soon after, the last in a saga of investigations and trials finally caught up with him. Having shaken off allegations ranging from mafia association to soliciting a child prostitute, he was convicted of a tax fraud involving his Mediaset television network.

He mounted various “comebacks”, but never attained such high office again, though he remained a kingmaker in the back rooms of Italian politics and held roles as a senator and MEP. Despite making no secret of the ambition, he never became president of Italy.

Berlusconi long fostered the idea that all his efforts were thwarted by the media, by biased judges, or by other nebulous enemies.

With Italy still struggling with many of the same problems that beset it when he entered politics three decades ago – or worse – supporters are still heard to sigh regretfully: “if only they had let him get on with it”.