The former mason, political gangster, entertainer, singer, businessman… Berlusconi showed us that machismo and buffoonery have no limits.
How can the former Prime Minister be described in short? Perhaps as a perfect product of postmodernist politics, belonging rather to a camp dance show rather than the realm of ideals and beliefs. But apart from being the man who invented bunga bunga and extreme sexualization of women – the phenomenon of vellina – Berlusconi was the most influential man in Italy – just after the notorious Giulio Andreotti. His political history goes back to the times of anni di piombo and includes post-products of this period, with the touch of Andreotti himself too. And both were portrayed by Paolo Sorrentino!
Berlusconi profoundly changed Italy, first as an entrepreneur, then as a politician. This is something no one can deny. We could argue about global politics where his touch was more indirect, but no less influential: I guess his shows and emphasis on triviality, stupefaction and atavism promoted by media, paved the way for “media work” of FoxNews, The Sun and other trash media. However, this article is not about it. We would need to dive deep into the history of journalism to distinguish whether we could talk about convergence or pioneering. But as far as his influence on Italy is to be discussed – Berlusconi was a pioneer in everything he did here. He took the worst from Italian society, and hyperboled them into space.
For years, he sympathized with the Italian Socialist Party of Bettin Craxi, his daughter’s godfather. He began his political career in the first half of the 1990s, when, as a result of corruption scandals (the so-called Tangentopoli), the main groupings of the existing political scene collapsed. He declared publicly that his aim was to prevent circles originating from the Italian Communist Party from coming to power, however this environment was much more liberal, than its previous name could tell you.
His very entry onto the scene as a politician took place as never before: with a videotape delivered to the newsrooms. It contained the famous ‘descent into the field’ speech. “Italy is the country I love, here I have my roots, my hopes, my horizons,” said the then head of Fininvest addressing the viewers directly. He was promising a “new Italian miracle,” referring to the first post-war years of Italy, born thanks to Communist-Christian Democrat cooperation. But they were no more, and it was the time of Berlusconi, the 26 January 1994. From that day on, Italy was never the same.
Man from the people
He started working when he was a university student, he was involved in singing at various events and performed as a crooner on Mediterranean cruise ferries. He returned to musical activity decades later, collaborating with his friend Mariano Apicella, which contributed to his image as a liberal leader and comfortable living trendsetter, different from arrogant and patronizing elites from the previous era.
He was then also involved in direct sales, working in a real estate agency, and in 1961 co-founded a company in this sector, Cantieri Riuniti Milanesi. He later created the companies Edilnord, Italcantieri and Milano 2, operating in the construction sector. In the 1970s, he became active in the media sector, first setting up Telemilano cable television. This sector would later make him an infamous caesar of the (neo)-liberal revolution.
In 1980, based on this television and several regional channels, Canale 5 was created, the first national private television station in Italy. This gave him enormous power and influence over domestic affairs, as Canale 5 could be compared to Brazilian Globo, the only news channel available in the whole country.
In the late 1970s, Silvio Berlusconi founded the Fininvest holding company, with the media arm becoming part of the Mediaset conglomerate, also controlled by the Berlusconi family. Back in the 1980s, the television stations Italia 1 and Rete 4 were bought out, and the holding company was also active on the television market in France, Spain, and Germany. It also expanded into other industries: finance, publishing, retail and culture.
Like the figures from Machiavellian studies of the Roman Republic, he first created his family empire, and then, step by step, walked into every domain of economic and political life of his motherland.
If Berlusconi has transformed the country, it must be noted that he has not even come close to realizing the liberal revolution, which is the objective for which he has dedicated at least half of his life, and the whole political life. On August 22, 2021, in an opinion piece that appeared in Il Giornale, he once more stated,
“As in 1994, I still believe that a liberal revolution is necessary and urgent”.
Contrarily, every attempt to make this dream a reality served as a stepping stone for populism to ascend to take over every aspect of Italian public life.
Berlusconi, just like the populist leaders of the Roman Republic, the populares, wanted to see his power as coming directly from the people. His efforts were based on the conviction that the people’s will directly influence how long the government would remain in power. In a speech he delivered to the Chamber of Deputies in 1994, just before his first administration was toppled by Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, he made this noticeably clear – with little success when it comes to the wellbeing of his cabinet.
The constitution, which instead specifies that the people exercise sovereignty “in the forms and within the limits” set out by the constitution itself, which are those appropriate to parliamentary democracies, does not, in fact, represent this philosophy. However, Berlusconi firmly affirms the notion of a direct line of communication between the ruler and the population. What is more important to notice, this theory might as well be emancipating as enslaving. It’s the echo of our times and Silvio’s heritage that we do not think about revolutionaries or visioners. Rather we look up to the example of Trump, Johnson or even Orban, for which the vote of the people is, as it was for Berlusconi, the mandate for corruption and rottenness, not the legitimacy of peoples will and engagement.
His first government, which came into power after long fight with mafia and in the shade of corruption scandals which killed 20th century grass-root parties, only lasted a few months. Nevertheless, over the next twenty years Berlusconi led three more governments, and he did so as the undisputed leader of a right-wing party of which he is recognized as the founder.
In the years of the first republic, in fact, Italians were divided between competing political cultures. Democristiana was a conservative camp with its own media entourage the Italian Communist Party was the biggest communist party in Europe. Everything changed when Forza Italia won the 1994 general election, thus establishing the so-called second republic.
Instead of the previous parties, organizations now are much more centered around a leader’s persona and less and less on the notion of society asserting itself. As power becomes increasingly a personal reality, parliamentary democracy becomes presidential, despite maintaining the same constitutional principles. Italians start to divide by following leaders rather than ideas, and parliament ends up holding a position that is increasingly advantageous to the administration. The right quickly adapted to the new tendency, with Berlusconi, Meloni or Salvini being the best examples of figures that make crowds follow them. The center left Partito Democratico is still somewhere in the past, with anti-charismatic Elly Shlein as a leader.
The years of triumph
In 1996, Berlusconi’s coalition lost the election to an alliance of centrist and left-wing groups. The Forza Italia leader retained his parliamentary seat for a 13th term, later holding it in subsequent elections in 2001, 2006 and 2008, sitting in the lower house of the Italian Parliament until 2013. In 1999, he took an additional seat in the European Parliament for the fifth term, sitting there until 2001.
The same year, next elections resulted in the victory of the House of Freedom, organized by him, and formed by the FI, the National Alliance, the Northern League, and an alliance of Christian Democrat parties. On 11 June 2001, Silvio Berlusconi returned as prime minister, forming his second cabinet. In his successive governments, he temporarily carried out the dismissed ministers’ duties, particularly as acting foreign minister from February to November 2002. On 23 April 2005, after disputes within the coalition, he formed his third government, which lasted until 17 May 2006. During these governments, reforms were made to the labor market and the pension system, making him especially later popular among elderly voters, but not among workers and trade unions. A proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen the powers of the prime minister was rejected in the referendum. Even in defeat, Berlusconi always managed to maintain the spotlight.
These years, 2001-2006, were, speaking frankly, the years of Silvio. They include, for instance, the NATO summit in Pratica di Mare, with Russia’s participation. Berlusconi himself spoke frequently in the years that followed that the ending of the cold war was his personal success.
The cracky facade
When Marcello Dell’Utri, one of the founders of Forza Italia and a close associate of the entrepreneur Berlusconi, was sentenced to seven years in prison for conspiring to commit crimes related to the mafia, it further fueled the pursuit of Berlusconi by a myriads of questions, which ranged from those about his membership in Licio Gelli’s P2 Lodge to those about some of the funds on which he had built his fortune as an entrepreneur.
As Davide Mattiello, ex-presidente of the anti-mafia committee in the Italian parliament, told me:
By the end of the 1990s, the Mafia was rebuilding its influence, even though it had abandoned its tactics of direct confrontation with the government. The actions of the anti-Mafia magistrates came under constant attack from the right, especially from the new Forza Italia party led by Silvio Berlusconi. Especially after prominent members of Forza Italia were linked to Mafia corruption. One of the most prominent anti-Mafia judges was removed from office in 1999 due to these attacks.
This later exploded in the symphony of shady rumors and later claims against Berlusconi. His party is still seen as a vehicle for mafia interests by many commentators. The judicial inquiries that have featured him as a protagonist include allegations of bribery, extortion, child prostitution, tax fraud, bribery in judicial proceedings, and conspiracy to commit massacre. He has often recalled how he spent his Saturdays with attorneys for years studying the court documents. All those histories have their beginnings in the second period of Berlusconi’s power; however, they ended long after that. In 2013, he was given a four-year prison term for tax fraud involving the purchasing and selling of television rights. It was his one and only conviction.
In 2012 and 2013 the judicial institutions showed how deeply Berlusconi’s closest court was in the arms of the mafia’s octopus. In 2012 the Italian Supreme Court emphasized in its 146-page rationale that the future prime minister had paid the Cosa Nostra to protect himself, his family, and his commercial interests. According to the court, he had promises of “free movement and activity” due to the arrangement with the Sicilian mafia. Marcello Dell’Utri, a later co-founder of the Forza Italia party, allegedly played a crucial intermediate role in the case’s resolution, according to the court.
During the former senator’s trial in 2012, Berlusconi was called as a witness on suspicion that the Mafia had extorted some €40 million from him – via Dell’Utri – in exchange for protection. The magnate rejected this claim, maintaining that he had given the money to Dell’Utri because he simply wanted to “help a friend”. The friend, who had been heading Publitalia – the advertising arm of Berlusconi’s media conglomerate (Fininvest) – for more than 30 years. His job as a stable hand for mafioso Vittorio Mangano at Silvio Berlusconi’s villa in 1974 is one piece of proof of these links. However, the court found that he was employed to guard the then-rising financial titan and his family after a wave of businesspeople and their children were abducted.
The Supreme Court supported its position by citing witness accounts of the present senator’s agreements with the Mafia. The court case involving Marcello Dell’Utri has been underway for 18 years, according to the media. He was initially charged with having connections to the Mafia dating back to the 1970s in the 1990s. He has received punishments from several courts, which have been later reversed or challenged. The trial of the senator from the People’s Freedom Party’s party is about to get underway in earnest thanks to a Supreme Court decision from March of this year.
Ad personam immunity
However, all of this might have been taken seriously much earlier. Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, who had received a nine-year jail term at the first instance, went on trial for an appeal in 2009, and Gaspare Spatuzza testified in that case. More than 200 international journalists as well as all the main Italian media were present at the hearing in Milan. On radio and television stations in Italy, the gangster’s testimony was carried live.
For the rest, there have been many acquittals, but they have also occurred because of the so-called ad personam laws, which Berlusconi, as the head of the government and the political majority, had voted through parliament specifically for the occasion.
These laws included ones that changed the statute of limitations or shielded high state officials from judicial investigations. It was something that had never occurred in Italy throughout the republic. It sparked a bitter conflict with the opposition that tore the nation apart until the demise of the final Berlusconi-led administration in 2011. Fighting for these regulations, so privately needed for Silvio, was his political mark, which was present also in the negotiations with Giorgia Meloni and Salvini in 2022. Fighting for his own interest, even if accompanied with populist narrative, was always at the forefront of his activity.
Berlusconi’s entry into politics signaled a point beyond which there was no turning baclk. This article is not dedicated only to this topic, which needs a book or two. We might emphasize it by just putting one fact here, one month ago there was de facto no anti-mafia committee in the Italian parliament. That will change in the upcoming weeks, after his death the coalition parties and the inner circle of the Forza Nuova might reconsider. However, it is long to be seen how much the death of the capo of Forza Italia will change the political culture of his entourage.
More to follow…