In the early hours of June 12th, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s long-serving former prime minister, died at the age of 86 after a short battle with leukemia. The controversial politician’s death was met with a state funeral, followed by a day of national mourning. Although many Italian public figures and citizens were saddened by his death and respected the state rules, a significant minority of people protested the decision to declare a day of national mourning. The protestors claimed that mourning his death is “inappropiate” due to the many scandals he was involved in and the supposed shame he brought to Italian politics. The polarized reaction to his death echoed the reactions he receieved throughout his entire career as he sought to make his mark on Italian society.
Berlusconi’s Career and Controversies
Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi’s early life was characterized by his entrepreneurial spirit. After getting a law degree in 1961, he soon ventured into the media sector and quickly launched his media empire with the establishment of his television company, Telemilano. The next few decades would see him begin to cultivate his dominant persona in Italian culture by rapidly expanding his empire with the acquisitions of a number of other television networks and channels. Berlusconi also entered into the publishing industry and became the owner of multiple influential newspapers and magazines, such as Panorama. His growing media empire, known as Fininvest, made him a powerful figure in Italy and set the stage for his entry into politics.
In 1994, Berlusconi founded the moderate right-wing party “Forza Italia”, and succesfully became elected Prime Minister after campaginging on a platform of economic reform and anti-corruption. He would go on to serve 3 separate stints as Prime Minister for a total of 9 years, making him the third longest serving PM in Italian history. During this time, he made a profound impact on Italian conservatism by implementing various tax cuts and pro-business measures. He was relatively successful in stiumlating the Italian economy by attracting foreign investment and fostering job growth throughout his tenures. However, it was his charismatic personality and populist appeal that made him such a remarkable figure; his ability to present himself as a political outsider has even made him credited with influencing Donald Trump’s political career.
And similarly to Trump, Berlusconi’s career was tarnished with a number of scandals. In the late 1990’s he faced allegations of bribing judges and lawyers, most notably with British lawyer David Mills in 1999, whom he paid 400, 000 pounds in exchange for favourable witness evidence in court. In 2012, Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud which led to him serving a year of community service and facing a 6 year ban of running for elected office. But perhaps most distrubingly, Berlusconi’s alleged participation in sex parties with underage girls in 2008 led to his resignation as Prime Minister in 2011, and provides arguably the largest stain on his record.
Contributions to Fringe Right-Wing Politics
Berlusconi’s charm and flamboyant demeanor afforded him a bully pulpit where he was able to communicate his conservative ideas and pursue relevant legislation. For example, in 2002 his governing coalition passed a severe anti-immigration law which criminalized undocumented migrants and militarized Mediterranean sea routes. His media empire was also known to promote right-wing narrations of history and current affairs that worked against the Italian mainstream versions, which were mostly centre-left. As a result, far-right activists were given a legitimacy by his media empire that had not previously existed in the post-war period. Many of these radical conservative propagandists subsequently rose to prominence in the media during the right-wing populist wave that swept through Italy in the mid-2010’s.
More alarming, however, was Berlusconi’s apparent admiration of fascism. He often championed nationalist rhetoric and positioned himself as a defender of Italian interests against perceived external threats, which echoes fascist sentiments. He has also been known to praise and defend former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, such as when he stated, “Mussolini had been wrong to pass anti-Jewish laws, but had otherwise been a good leader” on Holocaust memorial day in 2013.
Berlusconi’s admiration of fascism can also be demonstrated by the close relationship he held with current Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Meloni, who started her political career as a member of the neo-fascist party the “Italian Social Movement” in 1992, was taken under Berlusconi’s wing as he made her government minister in 2008. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party later allied with Meloni’s far-right Brother’s of Italy party in a coalition deal that ultimately made her PM in 2022. Although Berlusconi personally wasn’t as radically right-wing as Meloni is, he is responsible for fostering the political environment that enabled her to succeed.
Altogether, Berlusconi’s controversial career helped to set the stage for far-right ideologues to take charge of Italy’s government. Over the past year some members of his Forza Italia party have been switching allegiance to Meloni’s party; now that Berlusconi has passed away, it is near certain that many more members will follow. According to polling agent Lorenzo Pregliasco, “the center-right voters in Italy share a fundamental set of values on most issues” with far-right parties. Since Meloni is now the strongest voice in Italy representing those views, she is sure to receive a lot more support. Although Silvio Berlusconi’s influence on Italy is wide-ranging, his most significant impact may just be fueling the comeback of far-right politics in the Italian parliament.
https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2023/6/15/berlusconism-was-the-prequel-to-trumpism#:~:te xt=His%20obsession%20with%20freedom%20from,stagnation%20and%20growing%20public% 20debt