June 12, 2023: Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy and a current senator in the Italian parliament, has died at 86, according to reports from Italian media on Monday.
The cause of death has not been disclosed. Berlusconi was admitted to the hospital last week for planned medical examinations related to his chronic leukemia.
Berlusconi, known for his flamboyant lifestyle, served as Italy’s prime minister on multiple occasions starting in 1994. His larger-than-life persona left a lasting impact on popular culture, while his confrontational style, populist approach, legal troubles, and controversial behavior tarnished Italy’s international reputation.
Originally a showman, Berlusconi often boasted about his career beginning as a singer on cruise ships. He then ventured into construction and real estate and built a media empire that included television networks, newspapers, publishing houses, and even a renowned soccer team.
The Empire’s Origins The foundation of Berlusconi’s empire can be traced back to a game show in the 1970s, where a correct answer from a caller prompted a studio participant to remove an article of clothing.
“If someone had told me that this striptease program was the beginning of a vast media empire and a new political order, where the media mogul himself would become the prime minister, I would have laughed,” said Erik Gandini, director of the documentary “Videocracy” that explored the impact of Italian television on the country’s culture and politics.
By the 1980s, Berlusconi’s empire had become Italy’s largest media conglomerate, Mediaset. This expansion allowed him to acquire the country’s largest publishing house, Il Giornale newspaper, and the AC Milan soccer club.
Through his television networks, Berlusconi shaped a devoted audience that played a virtual role in the political arena.
Political Scandals Paved the Way. In the early 1990s, as bribery scandals rocked the existing political establishment, Berlusconi seized the opportunity to fill the void. With his rags-to-riches narrative, he sold many Italians a promising vision of prosperity and lower taxes.
In the 1994 general elections, Berlusconi surged to power. Although his government collapsed after just seven months, he dominated Italian politics for the next two decades, proudly declaring himself the most excellent prime minister Italy had ever seen.
It was widely known that Berlusconi had entered politics to protect his empire. During the 1990s, he faced legal challenges ranging from providing false testimony to alleged connections with the Sicilian Mafia.
Consolidating Power and Control Without conflict-of-interest regulations to impede him, Berlusconi retained ownership of his television networks while serving as prime minister and gained control over state-run broadcasting.
Maurizio Viroli, a professor of politics and government at the University of Texas – Austin, describes the power wielded by Berlusconi as closer to a form of tyranny.
“A level of power that no democratic or liberal country in history has ever witnessed a single leader possesses,” Viroli explained. “That’s why I use the term ‘tyranny.'”
Berlusconi cultivated personal relationships with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. However, he often faced international ridicule for his perpetual tan, hair transplants, and facelifts.
Despite his increasingly controversial pranks, inappropriate jokes, and racist remarks, Berlusconi became the longest-serving prime minister in Italian history, governing intermittently between 1994 and 2011, totaling approximately nine years.
Foreign observers struggled to comprehend the secret behind Berlusconi’s enduring popularity. Viroli attributes it to Italians’ aversion to moral principles. “When they see someone who tells them that it’s acceptable to disregard principles, neglect civic duties, and violate laws, they embrace him.”
Legal Troubles and Political Comeback Berlusconi survived numerous corruption trials, scandals involving orgies, and an underage sex scandal.
However, when the European debt crisis struck Italy in 2011, financial turmoil forced Berlusconi to step down as prime minister for the final time.
In 2014, his political career appeared to meet a humiliating and definitive end when he was expelled from parliament following a conviction for tax evasion.
Due to his age at the time, 77, his four-year prison sentence was commuted to four hours per week assisting dementia patients. When Berlusconi left office, Italy’s economy stagnated, and the national debt skyrocketed.
Nevertheless, Berlusconi’s days as a political figure were far from over. He continued to lead his Forza Italia party throughout his sentence and successfully ran for and won a seat in the European Parliament in 2019. Subsequently, he re-entered Italian politics by securing a Senate seat in the 2022 general elections.
His party formed a coalition government with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, although Berlusconi’s comments on Putin and the conflict in Ukraine posed challenges for the Italian government.