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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Former Italian PM Berlusconi Dies at 86


One of the most controversial figures in recent European politics, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has died at the age of 86. The Milan native held multiple high-ranking offices in Italy, most notably the position of Prime Minister for three different stints between 1994 and 1995, 2001 and 2006, and again from 2008 to 2011. Known for his bold personality and strongman tendencies, Mr. Berlusconi fought off a myriad of allegations and scandals in both his personal and professional life to become one of Italy’s most famous leaders. Labelled as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) by his followers, Berlusconi led the center-right Forza Italia party for nearly 25 years, even campaigning in Italy’s most recent parliamentary elections in 2022.

A virtual unknown in the Italian political world, Berlusconi burst onto the scene in 1994 as a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, a position he held until 2013. Less than a month after entering the Italian Parliament, he became Prime Minister of the country, as his Forza Italia party won 21% of the vote, making it the strongest party in a center-right coalition government. Once admitting that he had only campaigned for federal office to avoid imprisonment for his personal business practices, Berlusconi was the majority stakeholder in Mediaset, the largest television broadcaster in Italy. Despite promises to sell those stakes once in office, Mr. Berlusconi kept his majority share for his entire political career.

Often allying with other right-wing populist parties such as the Lega Nord, National Alliance, and Fratelli d’Italia, Berlusconi was a mainstay of right-wing Italian politics for over three decades, and his Forza Italia party is even a member of the current governing coalition in Italy. Along with being a divisive figure inside Italy, his foreign policy positions and opinions, both during and after his terms as PM, often conflicted with those of his European neighbors. Mr. Berlusconi was one of the eight signatories of the so-called “Letter of Eight,” which solidified support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A close friend of both George W. Bush and Tony Blair, Berlusconi often stood solidly behind American interests in both Europe and the Middle East. Upon his death, another close ally, Vladimir Putin, called Mr. Berlusconi a “dear person, a true friend,” and a “true patriot.” Mr. Berlusconi’s personal and professional relationship with Mr. Putin was often a source of controversy, especially after he refused to denounce Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine months into the war. Last year, Mr. Berlusconi even boasted in an interview that he had “re-established” his relationship with the Russian President, despite the war.

Away from his political policy, Berlusconi was a magnet for corruption scandals and disregard for the law. His legal troubles began in the 1990s when he was first sentenced for accounting fraud pertaining to his holding company Fininvest. As the owner of Fininvest, Mr. Berlusconi not only owned Mediaset but also the AC Milan football club, one of the most valuable clubs in Europe. His sentence for this first case was later suspended, and future fines for corruption and bribing tax inspectors were also overturned and thrown out in 2000. In 2006, Mr. Berlusconi was then accused of tax fraud over a six-figure payout to a British lawyer. He would later be convicted of tax fraud and barred from public office for five years. After a successful appeal, he would only be sentenced to one year of community service at a nursing home. Finally, in 2011, Berlusconi was found guilty of having sex with an underage prostitute and was sentenced to seven years in prison. An appeals court later overturned this conviction in 2014. Once again, in 2015, he was sentenced to three years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office due to bribing a senator to change political affiliations. However, due to the statute of limitations, Berlusconi did not serve any prison time. However, he was unable to run for office or campaign for his party during that five-year stretch. Throughout all of this, Mr. Berlusconi served three times as Italian Prime Minister, served a term in the European Parliament, and was the leader of one of Italy’s most successful center-right parties.

Current Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d’Italia party is currently serving in a coalition with Forza Italia, called Berlusconi “above all a fighter” and “a man who was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs.” Despite Berlusconi naming Meloni to her first government post in 2008 (as Sports Minister), the two often clashed over the past year due to differences in opinion, most notably on Ukraine, of which Meloni has been a steadfast supporter. Nevertheless, Meloni confirmed that Berlusconi will receive a state funeral on Wednesday, June 14th.

Throughout his long tenure as a symbol of Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi was one of the most controversial leaders in Europe and a man whose legacy continues to split the opinions of the Italian populace.

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