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Billionaire Berlusconi brought burlesque to Italian politics


By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Brash, ebullient and a self-made billionaire, four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was a media mogul and political showman whose financial and sexual scandals made him the most polarising figure in modern Italy.

He died on Monday aged 86, sources said.

With an unassailable self-confidence and a sharp entrepreneurial spirit, Berlusconi created a business empire that at its peak stretched from construction to television, publishing, retailing and top flight soccer.

He used his wealth and media prowess to launch himself into politics in 1994, upending traditional parties in a way that another property mogul, Donald Trump, later did when he was elected U.S. president in 2016.

Berlusconi’s many critics say he used his power primarily to protect his own business interests, pointing to Italy’s weak economic record, hidebound bureaucracy and unchecked corruption during his lengthy stints in government.

He himself said he only entered politics to halt the left.

“Politics was never my passion. It made me lose a lot of time and energy. If I entered the ring, it was just to prevent the communists from taking power,” he told Chi magazine in an interview to mark his 80th birthday in 2016.

Voters repeatedly bought into his can-do exuberance and Berlusconi survived a string of diplomatic gaffes and scandals, including allegations he had sex with an underage girl and hosted wild orgies.

But he was overwhelmed by the scale of Europe’s financial crisis in 2011 and had to resign as prime minister.

Fresh humiliation followed in the shape of a 2013 conviction for tax fraud, a verdict which meant he was temporarily barred from parliament and stripped of his cherished title, Il Cavaliere, or the Knight – a state decoration.

Under financial pressure, he sold his beloved AC Milan soccer team, whose success on the field had once mirrored his political triumphs, while his efforts to turn his media group into a pan-European broadcasting giant never really took off.

Defying the tide of time, Berlusconi campaigned ahead of a 2022 national election, but his famed sparkle had faded and his once predominant Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, riven with divisions, took barely 8% of the vote – its lowest ever score.

However, it was enough to secure a return to government as a junior partner in a rightist coalition, with Berlusconi himself winning a Senate seat, ending his parliamentary exile.

As with his political party, so with his business empire, Berlusconi left no single heir apparent. Under Italian law, all five of his children will receive a share of his assets, while Forza Italia might struggle to survive without him at the helm.


Berlusconi was born into a modest family in northern Italy in 1936. After stints as a cruise ship crooner, he made his first fortune in real estate deals in Milan in the 1960s and 70s. Berlusconi constantly denied repeated accusations that he received Mafia money to underpin those initial investments.

Having built apartments, Berlusconi provided the tenants with their own television channel. That enterprise rapidly grew into a de facto national network that eventually broke the state monopoly, introducing Roman Catholic Italy to the delights of topless game shows and downmarket U.S. soap operas.

Smothered by Italy’s red tape, it was almost impossible to get ahead without political patronage and when Berlusconi’s chief protector, Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, fled abroad to escape corruption charges, the magnate decided to go into politics himself, naming his party after a soccer chant.

With the old political class swept away by graft charges, Italians lapped up Berlusconi’s smiling reassurances that he knew how to fix the country, and within months they elected him prime minister.

His government lasted barely half a year, the coalition collapsing following news that he had been placed under investigation for corruption tied to his business interests.

Legal woes accompanied Berlusconi throughout his political career and he was convicted in at least seven cases on serious charges, including bribing a senator and paying off judges.

Those convictions were eventually overturned on appeal or swept from the courts by the statute of limitations that gives magistrates a set period of time to complete their prosecutions – time that one Berlusconi administration sharply reduced.

Berlusconi said he was the victim of leftist-led judicial persecution and the electorate sided with him, returning him to power in elections in 2001. Voted out of office in 2006, he stormed back in 2008, using his charm and negotiating skills to weave together often argumentative centre-right coalitions.

On the international stage he cultivated a particularly close bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin – a friendship he defended even following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, drawing censure from across the political spectrum in the West.

Berlusconi’s relations with European partners were often prickly, above all during the 2011 sovereign debt crisis when he was viewed as a liability. A biography, “My Way”, written by Alan Friedman, said relations got so bad that the then-French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, refused to shake his hand.


At the same time, Berlusconi’s sex life was being played out in the world’s press, including lurid details of his notorious “bunga bunga” parties.

Magistrates say he paid thousands of euros for sex with Moroccan-born nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, alias “Ruby the Heart Stealer”, when she was under-age.

He denied this but admitted springing her from a police station by saying she was the niece of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. A court eventually acquitted him of having sex with a youth, saying he was not to know she was under 18.

Although Berlusconi made light of his reputation as a philanderer, his second wife Veronica Lario did not and she asked for a divorce, saying she could not live with a man who “frequented minors”.

She was initially awarded one of the biggest divorce payouts in Italian history – 1.4 million euros ($1.63 million) a month in maintenance. But like many court rulings that went against him, Berlusconi appealed and the sum was later reduced to zero.

The many scandals took their toll and in 2011 he quit as prime minister as Italy came close to a Greek-style debt crisis. A jeering crowd shouted their delight when his cortege headed to the president’s office to hand in his resignation.

However, as the years progressed his battered image regained something of its old lustre and he was increasingly seen as an elder statesman who exerted a moderating influence on more extremist forces in his conservative camp.

When he was hospitalised in September 2020 with severe coronavirus he was inundated with messages of goodwill from all quarters, marking his rehabilitation in Italian society.

He never remarried but in 2022, he held a “symbolic” marriage with his partner Marta Fascina, 53 years his junior, who wore a white bridal dress to the unofficial ceremony.

Berlusconi was one of the most extraordinary characters to come out of Italy’s often bizarre political landscape, a flamboyant figure whose off-colour jokes alone would have killed a political career in most European Union countries.

After Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States, Berlusconi congratulated him for being “tall, handsome, and suntanned”.

But his often clownish personality and repeated plastic surgery hid a keen political mind and an almost uncanny talent for tapping into the fears and concerns of ordinary Italians.

Berlusconi himself had no regrets about his political career, although he clearly felt he was often betrayed.

“All I know is that in both foreign and domestic politics I never made a single mistake,” he told Chi magazine in 2016. “But when I come to think about it, I cannot recall the name of a single friend in politics.”($1 = 0.8579 euros)

(Editing by Mark Heinrich, Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan)

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