Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi Image Credit: AP

“Berlusconi is there because others have failed.” These words by Italian columnist Massimo Franco were made to the Washington Post in 2018, shortly before the Italian March elections. They sum up the story of Italy’s modern politics.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving prime minister died on June 12. His party, Forza Italia, is a partner in Italy’s current government coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni.

Berlusconi has not served as a prime minister since 2011. Despite his old age — he died at 86 — and his many scandals, he continued to cast a shadow over Italian politics.

Judging by the ongoing television coverage of his state funeral, and around-the-clock commentary, one suspects that the legacy of the Italian leader will dominate Italian political and popular discourses for years to come.

Read more

Why is this the case?

Few in Italian political history have had the same kind of media attention as Berlusconi had throughout his years in power. In 2013 he was banned from running for any official office for five years due to tax fraud.

Allegations of corruption have been linked to Berlusconi since the start of his political career. In 2003, he faced charges that a company, which belonged to him, had paid a 500-million-euro bribe to a judge in 1991.

Yet, with each legal accusation, media allegation or trial, Berlusconi emerged stronger, possibly because his target audience was rarely the Roman political elites, but rather the populace. He spoke tirelessly about being a ‘victim’ of a relentless ‘witch hunt’, making him “the most persecuted man in all of history,” as he once declared in 2009.

Berlusconi’s power — which allowed him to form governments in 1994-95, 2001-05, 2005-06 and 2008-11 — stemmed from the fact that the Italian leader could make grand pronouncements, unchallenged through his powerful media empire.

Though a billionaire, Berlusconi succeeded in painting himself as a victim of politicised judges — just like Donald Trump in the US.

Both Berlusconi and Trump were/are media moguls, with entertainment backgrounds. Media power simply translates to omnipresent narratives that turn extremely wealthy individuals into ‘men of the people’.

A cult personality

Berlusconi — like Trump — is a cult personality. This popularity allowed him to serve as prime minister four times and to amass fabulous wealth.

Yet, analyses concerning success stories of benevolent, patriarchal political figures who use media influence often end here. But why did many Italians feel the need for a Berlusconi-type leader?

It is true that his right-wing political party, Forza Italia, did partner with other far-right groups, the likes of Lega Nord. And he did speak often of the importance of “tradizione” — tradition. But Berlusconi is not a Mussolini, who used the parliament to achieve political ascendancy. At worst, Berlusconi’s powerful corporations took Italy back to the age of ‘Corporatism’, a term used in the past, which is considered the precursor to fascism.

OPN Berlusconi FUNERAL
Pallbearers carry the coffin of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during his state funeral, at Duomo square, in Milan, Italy June 14, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Italians, like all people everywhere, do not elevate democracy just because of its intellectual merit, but because of the tangible difference it can make in their lives. In 2017, data gathered by the EU indicated that 60 per cent of Italians are not happy with their democratic system.

Since the establishment of the Italian Republican system in 1946, the country has had 68 governments. The only exception to this rule was Berlusconi who, between 2001 and 2005, served a full term.

The late Italian leader’s supporters say that Berlusconi was genuine, humble and funny. He approached all Italians as equals. He was also a self-made man and, whether genuine or not, he cared about the country. His massive fan club nicknamed him ‘Il Cavaliere’, the knight.

Conveniently, some analysts blame ordinary people for their gullibility that allowed the likes of Berlusconi to use democracy as a vehicle for his own quest for power and wealth. But this is short-sighted.

Berlusconi was not the exception to this rule. He survived longer, however, because he had influential media channels, like Mediaset, which allowed him to fight, and often defeat his detractors.

Still, we must keep in mind that, with or without Berlusconi, Italy remains a democracy. The fact that the people managed to topple numerous governments, voted in referendums against self-serving attempts at redrafting the Constitution, and fought against corruption at every level of society, is a testament to the power of a people who fought fascism in all of its forms.

Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor. He is the author of six books.