1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Silvio Berlusconi: Flashy media mogul and political populist

June 12, 2023

A flamboyant media tycoon and three-time Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi divided the public, in Italy and abroad, like few other politicians. Looking back, he was one of the trailblazers for political populism.

Silvio Berlusconi sits in a gold-backed chair
Silvio Berlusconi, seen here in January 2023, was hospitalized last FridayImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

Silvio Berlusconi, a media tycoon and politician, will be remembered for his antics. In 2002, then prime minister for a second time, he held up his pinky and forefinger behind the head of Josep Pique, Spain's foreign minister, during a photo op with EU leaders. In Italy, that gesture is known as "corna" ("horns") and stands for a jilted husband.

In 2004, Berlusconi wore a bandana when he welcomed then British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a weekend at his villa in Sardinia. And later, in 2008, he pretended to strangle French President Nicolas Sarkozy during a press conference in Paris.

Berlusconi was a big Italian boy, a jokester and a scallywag, a rascal just the way many Italians liked it. He seemed to be a politician who wasn't as stiff as the others, one who could be spontaneous.

Silvio Berlusconi dies aged 86

But actually, things were very different, according to Italian journalist Giuseppe "Beppe" Severgnini, who wrote a book about the phenomenon that was Berlusconi.

Severgnini is convinced that Berlusconi's antics were calculated — and crossed the line multiple times. He believes many Italians were ashamed of them, except for Berlusconi himself and his supporters, of course.

"Berlusconi understands that criticism from abroad and the embarrassment of some of his fellow countrymen only increased his popularity with the lower classes — those people who used to vote left and now vote for him," said Severgnini.

'The stuff that dreams are made of'

And there were many, many people who voted for Berlusconi. In 1994, when he ran for prime minister for the first time, he won nearly 43% of the vote right off the bat. The answer to the question of why so many Italians counted on him can be found in the realm where politics stop being rational.

Berlusconi didn't have a solid political platform, columnist Ernesto Gallo della Loggia wrote that year in Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper. Berlusconi, the politician, exuded the artificial taste of plastic, he said, and the ideas he presented were merely generalizations. And yet: "Politics has to do with the heart and with the imagination. With hope and with the stuff that dreams are made of. And that is what the moderate block in Italy is sorely lacking right now."

Berlusconi speaks into a microphone
Young Silvio Berlusconi in 1986Image: Pierre Gleizes/AP/picture alliance

In the mid-1990s, Italians were in desperate need of dreams. Deindustrialization had pushed the economy to the brink of recession. Privatizations were followed by mass firings and the job market was deregulated. In addition to all that, the political situation was depressing as well.

In the spring and summer of 1992, two top anti-Mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were killed in car bombs in Sicily. Some politicians were rumored to have had ties to organized crime, and corruption was a widespread phenomenon. The expression "Tangentopoli," which means Kickback City and was first coined for Italy's wealthiest city, Milan, became a symbol for the misery of the times.

Great expectations

Enter Berlusconi: he was called "il Cavaliere," the knight. The self-made man promised to make Italy great again with his conservative Forza Italia party. The billionaire entrepreneur promised he would repeat his economic successes on a national level. Voters believed him — mostly, probably, because they desperately wanted to so. They were hoping for a miracle, and so were forgiving about the unexplained origins of some of his wealth and the conflicts of interest between his political positions and his economic interests.

"Silvio Berlusconi entered politics to defend his companies," Berlusconi's senior adviser Marcello Dell'Utri said back at the beginning of his political career in 1994. But the voters didn't care. They still felt that the prime minister represented them and their interests.

Journalist Giuseppe Severgnini wrote that Berlusconi represented the updated version of how Italians saw themselves: "an autobiography full of omissions and self-indulgence."

Comeback attempt at the EU level

Berlusconi voters weren't put off by the 30 trials initiated against him, or even his arrogance.

"I say in all honesty that I believe I am by far the best president that the Republic of Italy has ever seen in its 150-year history," Berlusconi said in 2009 during his fourth term in office.

His affairs with very young women didn't irritate voters, either. "Bunga bunga," the ironic catchphrase representing the sex parties he was accused of hosting, were famous and became firmly entrenched in popular culture.

In the summer of 2013, Berlusconi was sentenced for tax fraud and barred from holding public office for six years. The ban was overturned in 2018 and a year later, the 82-year-old promptly ran for office, not as head of state but for a seat in the European Parliament. He had already run in four previous EU elections, but only served as MEP from 1999 to 2001. In the other three elections, he preferred to cede his mandate to other party colleagues.

In 2019, however, he felt an urge to take the EU's fate into his own hands and entered the European Parliament as the Italian candidate with the most votes. But just a year later, it became clear that even the Cavaliere was vulnerable. In early September 2020, he tested positive for COVID-19, with doctors announcing he was being treated for pneumonia in both lungs.

He recovered and in the summer of 2022, he ran as the leading candidate for his Forza Italia in the parliamentary elections.

Silvio Berlusconi, surrounded by journalists, waves at the crowd
Silvio Berlusconi waves after casting his vote in the 2022 electionsImage: ANSA/AFP via Getty Images

The party had previously formed an alliance with the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party and the right-wing Lega.

Berlusconi and his party were unable to repeat their earlier successes, however, garnering this time only a lowly 8% of the vote. As a result, the party no longer played a dominant role in the coalition negotiations, thus leaving Berlusconi unable to push through most of his demands against current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party, which won the biggest share of the votes.

Essentially, this amounted to a role reversal: Meloni had gained her first experience in government as youth minister under Berlusconi. After the 2022 election, she showed her mentor what he had probably considered almost inconceivable throughout his life: A modern woman had put Berlusconi, the Cavaliere, in his place.

The era of the Cavaliere has now come to an end.

He had been suffering from chronic leukemia "for some time" and had recently developed a lung infection. Berlusconidied on June 12, 2023 at the age of 86 in the San Raffaele hospital in Milano.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East