Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister of Italy, has died at the age of 86

Nabil Anas

Global Courant

Silvio Berlusconi, the boastful billionaire media magnate who was Italy’s longest-serving prime minister despite scandals over his sex-fuelled partying and corruption allegations, has died, according to his television network Mediaset. He turned 86.

Mediaset announced his death with a smiling photo of the man on its homepage and the headline: “Berlusconi is dead.” Italy’s LaPresse news agency reported Berlusconi’s death after being hospitalized for treatment of chronic leukemia for the second time in months on Friday.

He also suffered from heart disease, prostate cancer over the years and was hospitalized for COVID-19 in 2020.

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

Berlusconi was prime minister for just over eight months, starting in 1994 and then from 2001-2006 and 2008-2011. His political party Forza Italia was a coalition partner under the current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni.

Meloni remembered Berlusconi “mostly as a fighter.”

“He was a man who had never been afraid to defend his faith. And it was precisely that courage and determination that made him one of the most influential men in Italy’s history,” Meloni said Monday.

“Many loved him, many hated him”

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

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Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a political rival, acknowledged Berlusconi’s divisive legacy in a post on Twitter.

“Silvio Berlusconi made history in this country. Many loved him, many hated him. All must recognize that his impact on political life, but also on the economy, sport and television, has been unparalleled.”

Berlusconi laughs with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the G20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 12, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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When former US President Donald Trump launched his political career, many drew comparisons to Berlusconi, noting that they both had long business careers and were sports team owners before entering politics. Each sought to upend the existing order, attracting attention for their exaggerated personalities and lavish lifestyles.

For years, Berlusconi seemed untouchable despite countless scandals. Criminal cases were initiated, but ended in dismissals as statutes of limitations expired in Italy’s sluggish justice system, or he prevailed on appeal.

The investigation focused on the mogul’s steamy so-called “bunga bunga” parties, involving young women and minors, or his companies, including the AC Milan football team, the three largest private TV networks, magazines and a daily newspaper of the country, and advertising and film companies. .

Only one led to a conviction: a tax fraud case that arose from the sale of film rights in his business empire. The conviction was upheld by Italy’s highest criminal court in 2013, but he was spared from prison due to his age, age 76, and ordered to do community service by assisting Alzheimer’s patients.

Gabriele Paolini, an Italian public figure known for his provocative stunts, holds up a photo of Berlusconi being set on fire in Rome on August 19, 2011. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

He continued to be stripped of his Senate seat and banned from holding or holding public office for six years under anti-corruption laws.

He eventually held office again – he was elected to the European Parliament at the age of 82 and to the Italian Senate last year. Berlusconi’s party has been eclipsed as the dominant force on Italy’s political right: first by the League, led by anti-migrant populist Matteo Salvini, then by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, with roots in neo-fascism.

He also suffered personal humiliations. Berlusconi lost his position as Italy’s richest man, though his sprawling media holdings and luxury real estate made him a billionaire several times over.

Karima el-Mahroug is escorted outside Milan’s courthouse by two Carabinieri police officers after giving her testimony on 17 May 2013 at the trial of three former Berlusconi associates accused of recruiting her and other women for prostitution. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

In 2013, one of his parties included a minor Moroccan dancer, Karima El Mahroug, who prosecutors alleged had sex with Berlusconi in exchange for money and jewellery.

After a trial laced with 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, sometimes sympathetic to his conservative politics, was appalled by his antics, and his wife of nearly 20 years divorced him, but Berlusconi made no apology, declaring, “I am not a saint.”

Controversy usually not far

Berlusconi insisted voters were impressed by his brashness.

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

From the start of his political career in 1994, he portrayed himself as the target of a judiciary he believed to be full of left-wing sympathizers. He always proclaimed his innocence.

Berlusconi shakes hands with then US President George W. Bush after a joint press conference at Rome’s Villa Madama on June 12, 2008. Italy was a strong supporter of the US-led war in Iraq. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

He enjoyed flouting political etiquette. He posed for photos at international summits and made an Italian gesture – which could be insulting or superstitious depending on the circumstances – in which the index and pinky fingers are extended like horns.

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

When Berlusconi was criticized by a German lawmaker in the European Parliament in 2003, he compared his opponent to a concentration camp guard. Years later, he sparked outrage when he compared his family’s legal troubles to what Jews must have encountered in Nazi Germany.

Construction magnate, media owner

Berlusconi was born in Milan on September 29, 1936, the son of a middle-class banker. He received a law degree and wrote his dissertation on advertising.

He started a construction company at the age of 25, building apartment complexes for middle-class families on the outskirts of Milan, part of a post-war boom.

But his astronomical wealth came from the media. In the late 1970s and 1980s, he circumvented the Italian state television monopoly RAI by setting up a de facto network in which local channels all showed the same programming. RAI and its Mediaset network accounted for approximately 90 percent of the national market in 2006.

When the ‘Clean Hands’ corruption scandals of the 1990s decimated the political establishment that had dominated post-war Italy, Berlusconi filled the void and founded Forza Italia in 1994.

His first government in 1994 collapsed after eight months when an ally leading an anti-immigrant party lost support. But aided by an aggressive campaign, including mass mailings from glossy magazines telling his success story, Berlusconi emerged victorious in 2001.

He then set a record for longevity of government in Italy, but it was not easy. A G8 summit he organized in Genoa in 2001 was marred by violent anti-globalization demonstrations and the death of a protester who was shot by a police officer.

Berlusconi faced fierce domestic opposition and alienated some allies by sending 3,000 troops to Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003. For a time, Italy was the third-largest contingent in the US coalition.

At home he was constantly accused of sponsoring laws designed to protect himself or his companies, but he insisted that he always acted in the interests of all Italians. Legislation passed when he was prime minister allowing office holders to own but not run media companies was seen by his critics as tailor-made for Berlusconi.

Last term as PM ended in 2011

He was also friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was staying at his Sardinian estate, and visited the Russian leader, notably on his way to Crimea after Moscow illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014.

His friendship with Putin put him at odds with Meloni, especially after Russia invaded Ukraine. On his 86th birthday, as the war raged, Putin sent Berlusconi best wishes and vodka, and the Italian boasted that he returned the favor by returning Italian wine.

Berlusconi, an admirer of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, introduced reforms that partially liberalized labor and pension systems, among the most rigid in Europe.

Silvio Berlusconi is shown on March 28, 1994 casting a vote. Berlusconi would lead a governing coalition after those elections, the first of his three terms as Italian prime minister. (Reuters)

In 2006, when Italy was ridiculed as ‘the sick man of Europe’, with an economy mired in zero growth and a mounting budget deficit, Berlusconi narrowly lost the general election to centre-left leader Romano Prodi.

He returned in 2008 for what would be his last term as prime minister. It ended abruptly in 2011, when financial markets lost confidence in its ability to prevent Italy from succumbing to the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Berlusconi reluctantly resigned, much to the relief of the economic superpower Germany.

Berlusconi was first married to Carla Dall’Oglio in 1965, and their two children, Marina and Piersilvio, were being 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.

Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister of Italy, has died at the age of 86

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