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Immensely wealthy, controversial and perpetually powerful, Silvio Berlusconi is one of Europe’s most notorious political figures.
Q: Who is he?
Silvio Berlusconi is the four-time former Prime Minister of Italy, former owner of AC Milan football club and a politician with an extensive, scandal-ridden career. Worth over $7 billion, and the longest-ruling post-war Italian leader, he appeared on the ballot in the 2018 election on 4th March despite technically being barred from office due to his criminal record.
Q: How did he become so powerful?
After a career in his youth as a musician and singer, Berlusconi began a lucrative property business in the 1960s. Following highly successful investments in a 4,000 apartment project in Milan, he was a media mogul by the 1980s. He is the founder of Finivest, which remains Italy’s only media empire encompassing television channels and publishing across Italy, with pre-established ties to then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi proving essential during its creation. He also owned AC Milan football club from 1986 until selling it for €640m in 2017.
Berlusconi entered politics in 1993, establishing the new political party Forza Italia (‘For Italy’, after a football chant). His business experience was imperative in his support, and he was thought to represent a new start for a country going through the ‘mani putile‘ (clean hands) judicial operation, where thousands of public figures, many at the highest rungs of society, were investigated for corruption.
First elected Prime Minister in 1994, Berlusconi was defeated in a snap election in 1996 after infighting within the governing coalition and his indictment for alleged tax fraud (ironically, part of ‘mani putile’). He returned to power in 2001, again forming a right-wing coalition.
In 2008 he was re-elected under a new political party Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL – People of Freedom). He continued to lead Italy until the 2011 Eurozone crash, as failure to meet election promises and accusations of using his position to aid business ventures led to a fall in his popularity. Resigning in 2011, Berlusconi accused the EU of plotting against him. Incredibly, in 2013 he ran for Prime Minister again, losing the election by a margin of 1%.
Q: What was he like as Prime Minister?
Berlusconi has typically described himself as a liberal with free market sensibilities, but critics have accused him of authoritarianism and privatisation of public services. Berlusconi’s ownership of Italy’s media empire also allowed him to exert control over television news, the primary news source for most of the population.
Between 2003 and 2006, Berlusconi aspired to reform the Italian constitution. These reforms would have increased the autonomy of local governments and strengthened prime ministerial power over Parliament and policy, but were rejected in a national referendum in 2006. Opponents cited the risks of excessive cost, authoritarianism and dividing the north and south of the country based on economic prosperity.
In foreign policy, Berlusconi strengthened Italy-USA relations, supporting the Bush administration in the Iraq War, and avidly supported Turkey and Israel joining the EU. Berlusconi also has a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, described as his ‘mouthpiece’ for Europe, much to the concern of the US – he even visited the Crimea in 2015. Berlusconi also maintained close ties with Colonel Gadaffi’s government in Libya before the outbreak of civil war, organising reparations to Libya for Italy’s military occupation from 1911-1943.
Q: Why is he so controversial?
He’s also been the subject of an extensive list of legal battles, including but not limited to allegations of corruption, abuses of power, embezzlement, sexual indecency, and ties to the mafia. Estimating himself that he’s spent €200mn in legal fees, he’s had 2,500 court visits over 106 trials. Most haven’t resulted in convictions or sentences, partly due to the expiry of the statute of limitations. For a time, Berlusconi was granted immunity against courts as his prime ministerial duties would be an ‘impediment’ to standing trial, a ruling revoked in 2011. Berlusconi and associated defendants deny all allegations, once claiming he had experienced:
Judicial harassment that is unmatched in the civilised world
Berlusconi was, however, found guilty of tax fraud and embezzlement in 2013, relating to media dealings in the 1980s and 1990s. Ejected from the Italian Parliament after an intense debate and sentenced to four years in prison, due to his age he avoided incarceration, instead doing community service at a care home. He was also banned from holding public office for six years, which he tried to repeal at the European Court of Human Rights.
Arguably Berlusconi’s greatest notoriety arises from his personal life. His ex-wife accused him of ‘consort[ing]with minors’ and choosing inexperienced, young female candidates to represent his party. In 2010, allegations arose that Berlusconi paid an underage prostitute to have sex with him at a ‘bunga-bunga‘ party in his private villa. He’s consistently denied the allegations, and despite being found guilty in 2013 the conviction was overturned the following year. He will also stand trial in the future for attempting to bribe a witness in this case.
Q: How has he made a political comeback?
Berlusconi announced his return to politics in late 2017 under Forza Italia. The rise of the anti-establishment, populist 5 Star Movement prompted Forza Italia to form a coalition with the eurosceptic League Party. Berlusconi promised to expel 600,000 migrants and tighten Italy’s borders.
Election results produced no majority for a single party, but far-right League and 5 Star Movement won the most votes. Although seen as a loss for Forza Italia, Berlusconi has said that he will coordinate a new centre-right coalition, which won enough seats for a majority. Miraculously, at 81 and still barred from public office, Berlusconi still dominates Italian politics.