Italy’s Berlusconi, ‘the knight’ known for scandals, dies at 86

The tycoon, former Italian prime minister, and master of political and personal controversies was rarely out of the headlines.

Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends the "Porta a Porta" TV show at the Rai 1 headquarters on May 22, 2014 in Rome.
Silvio Berlusconi attends the "Porta a Porta" TV show at the Rai 1 headquarters on May 22, 2014 in Rome [Tiziana Fabi/AFP]

Silvio Berlusconi, the tycoon-turned-politician and former Italian prime minister, has died in Milan at the age of 86.

The right-wing leader, born in Milan on September 29, 1936, was widely known for his financial and sex scandals, but also transformed Italian politics. His dominance over the electoral sphere influenced the views of a generation of Italians.

Often compared with former US President Donald Trump, Berlusconi made his first fortune in real estate and construction, then slowly expanded, notably to the world of mass media.

Between the late 1970s and 1980s, he built a media empire. It included a publishing house and popular cable TV network, Mediaset, that was recognised as the biggest competitor to Italy’s state-owned television.

In 1986, he bought the popular AC Milan football team, saving it from certain bankruptcy.

It was not until 1994, however, that “the Knight” – Berlusconi’s popular nickname, entered the realm of Italian politics.

With the foundation of a new right-wing party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), a new era of Italian politics began, and Berlusconi secured his first election as prime minister that same year.

“He became the symbol of a new historical phase for Italy, where politics are no longer shaped by parties, but by single, strong characters,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of Luiss School of Government in Rome.

“Berlusconi is a product of Italian commercial TV’s golden age.”

League leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni speak at the closing electoral campaign rally of the centre-right coalition.
League leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni speak at the closing electoral campaign rally of the centre-right coalition [File: Yara Nardi/Reuters]

Although Berlusconi’s first mandate only lasted a year, as he was accused of fraud and criticised for his control of Italian media, he maintained his political power.

His promises of economic growth attracted new voters, which led him to win elections again in 2001 and 2008.

He remained in power until the end of 2011, when he stepped down after losing parliament’s trust following a highly-publicised sex scandal.

After entering politics, Berlusconi was regular fodder for Italy’s tabloids reporting on his more than 20 trials for abuse of power, financial fraud and rumours about lewd parties at his private villa just outside Milan.

The most closely followed case dates back to February 2011, when he was accused of soliciting sex from a 17-year-old Egyptian sex worker.

He was heavily criticised for backing a law that allowed politicians to escape trials while in office.

The episode damaged Berlusconi’s popularity, and he was later replaced by a series of temporary technocratic governments.

INTERACTIVE_Silvio Berlusconi_OBIT
(Al Jazeera)

‘Politicians as clowns’

“There have been lots of concerns about foreign media coverage depicting our politicians as clowns. But the truth is that we built this scenario ourselves,” Orsina said.

“Foreign media based their reports on our own coverage, which focused on trivial aspects and overlooked the real political complexities.”

According to Francesco Galietti, an Italian political analyst, Berlusconi should also be remembered for his ability to manage difficult relations, especially in the early 2000s.

“He was the only leader in recent years that understood Italy’s potential role in international scenarios. He was able to put together leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, [Turkey’s Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [United States President George] Bush on certain occasions. No other Italian leader after him could handle that level of international engagement,” Galietti told Al Jazeera.

But he failed to reach an accord with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011 who were pressing Italy for rapid market restructuring as Italian debt and the euro crisis spiralled.

His popularity hit an all-time low and this period marked the end of Berlusconi’s last mandate.

“Since then, many Italian party leaders have tried to replicate Berlusconi’s influence, but no one has managed to go that far,” Galietti explained.

“Everyone wants to inherit his legacy, but no one knows how, especially beyond domestic politics.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi puts on his earphones to be prepared for the first session of the CSCE summit meeting held in the Convention Center of Budapest, attended by 53 countries, Dec. 5, 1994. (AP Photo/Rudi Blaha)
Berlusconi puts on his earphones to be prepared for the first session of the CSCE summit meeting held in Budapest on December 5, 1994 [File: Rudi Blaha/AP Photo]

Even when out of office, Berlusconi dominated headlines.

In December 2012, his announcement of an official return to politics contributed to the collapse of Mario Monti’s technocratic government.

Although in 2013 the European Court of Human Rights had banned Berlusconi from political office, he managed to overturn the ruling.

During the Sicilian regional elections of 2017, he supported the winning right-wing coalition that included his party, Forza Italia, as well as anti-immigrant parties Lega Nord (Northern League) and Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia).

The Sicilian victory represented a strategic step to officially destroy former left-wing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s hopes for his potential comeback, and confirmed the right-wing’s influence in the south.

The 2018 national government elections resulted in a populist victory, where the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) and Lega Nord formed a coalition and Matteo Salvini emerged as the new leader of the far right.

Berlusconi continued to pursue his political goals by promoting a pro-EU agenda in his last period.

In 2019, at age 83 and after undergoing a delicate abdominal surgery, he was elected as a member of European Parliament.

“The European elections represented an important phase for Forza Italia, and brought new opportunities while also confirming Berlusconi’s party as yet a pillar of the centre-right,” explained Forza Italia legislator Alfio Papale, who personally rallied next to Berlusconi during the 2017 regional elections in Sicily.

“The victory in Sicily suggested to us that his moderate conservatism is an appealing political force that stands still throughout time.”

In recent years, as he struggled to remain relevant in Italy’s post-COVID political sphere, his health began deteriorating.

In early September 2020, he caught the virus and had been regularly hospitalised since then.

He recently stirred controversy again, however, by suggesting that Ukraine was responsible for Russia’s invasion, as he condemned far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – a move he said he would not have made as leader.

Overall, he will be yet remembered for having shaped a generation of Italian millennials.

“For 20 years, we were raised on an understanding of politics that was exclusively in relation to Berlusconi, or anti-Berlusconi,” said 36-year-old Galietti.

“As children of the Berlusconism era, it would feel strange to not see him again, even if just for a quick flash on TV. He influenced our existence.”

Berlusconi is survived by his girlfriend Marta Fascina, his two ex-wives Carla Dall’Oglio and Veronica Lario, three daughters – Barbara, Marina and Eleonora, and two sons – Luigi and Pier Silvio, who is the heir of his media empire and current executive vice-president of Mediaset TV.

Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, left, attends a meeting with Berlusconi at Villa Madama on June 10, 2009, in Rome [Franco Origlia/Getty Images]
Source: Al Jazeera