MILAN– Flamboyant tycoon-turned-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has bowed out, aged 86. The self-made billionaire pioneered the use of wealth and media to achieve political power. Though his Forza Italia party and business empire are already weakened and unlikely to regain much prominence after his death, his unorthodox political methods spawned imitators across the West.
Italy’s four-time and longest-serving prime minister, who often quipped he would live until 120, passed away on Monday. He had been suffering with leukaemia and had recently developed a lung infection. To many, his name remains associated with “bunga bunga” sex parties, fake tan, bad jokes and financial scandals. Yet his entrepreneurial approach to politics has been copied by leaders including former U.S. President Donald Trump. Ex-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also became popular by portraying himself as an eccentric outsider.
Of humble origins, Berlusconi acquired fame by building an empire that spanned at its peak real estate, broadcaster Mediaset, retailing and AC Milan soccer club. His pioneer spirit emerged in the 1970s when he started to challenge then dominant state TV broadcaster RAI. His aggressive use of advertising and cheap soap operas helped him create one of Europe’s biggest private broadcasting networks.
But it’s in politics that Berlusconi was most innovative. As Italy’s traditional parties collapsed under countless graft charges in the 1990s, he used his media popularity and image as a can-do entrepreneur to exploit Italy’s political void. While rivals and Western leaders looked down on his diplomatic gaffes, blatant self-interest and ebullient lifestyle, voters rewarded him with three electoral victories between 1994 and 2008.
Berlusconi’s ascent ended abruptly in 2011, when a spiralling sovereign debt crisis forced him out of office. It was downwards from there, with a tax fraud conviction compounding the assault his traditional broadcasters faced from digital rivals. In Italy, comedian Beppe Grillo outdid Berlusconi at his own game by using his personal brand and the internet to upend Forza Italia and other parties through his anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which was the largest party in government between 2018 and 2021.
Despite controversy because of his closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, last year Berlusconi managed an unexpected comeback by siding with the victorious Brothers of Italy, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. But without an anointed political successor and the risk of fragmented ownership at Berlusconi’s family holding company Fininvest, both his party and his business empire are at risk. Shares in Mediaset’s successor MediaForEurope (MFEB.MI) were up 10% on Monday amid expectations the company could be sold. Meloni, whose hard-right group is Italy’s most popular party, will probably swallow up Forza Italia voters. And a plan to build a pan-European broadcasting champion has made little progress. Yet the mogul’s once unconventional methods have now gone mainstream, and his entrepreneurial approach to politics lives on.
Former Italian prime minister and broadcaster Mediaset founder Silvio Berlusconi died on June 12, aged 86.
Berlusconi had been suffering from leukaemia and had recently developed a lung infection.