Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's once-untouchable prime minister

  • 14 June 2016
  • From the section Europe
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears on Italian TV in April 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Berlusconi dominated Italian politics from the 1990s until 2013

Few Italians have wielded more influence and attracted more notoriety than Silvio Berlusconi, four-time prime minister and billionaire businessman.

For years he successfully brushed off sex scandals and allegations of corruption but it was the effects of Italy's burgeoning eurozone debt crisis in 2011 that finally spelt an end to his time at the top table of politics.

The charismatic showman was replaced by a technocrat and his centre-right party split.

Worse was to come for a man whom many Italians had come to see as untouchable.

He was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and ejected from the Italian Senate. Because of his age, a four-year jail term became a year of community service at a care home near Milan. Another conviction in 2015 and his political career was finally over.

For years his looks belied his age, with a little help from hair transplants and plastic surgery. However, after a heart attack that his doctor said could have killed him, he has had heart surgery to replace a defective valve.

From crooner to business mogul

Berlusconi, 79, remains one of Italy's richest men. He and his family have built a fortune estimated at $6.6bn (£4.6bn; €6.6bn) by US business magazine Forbes.

Born on 29 September 1936, Berlusconi lived through the war as a child. Like many Milan children, he was evacuated and lived with his mother in a village some distance from the city.

He began his career selling vacuum cleaners and built a reputation as a crooner, first in nightclubs and then on cruise ships.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Berlusconi's children play a big role in running his business empire: daughter Barbara is vice-president of AC Milan

"I had a repertoire of 150 different songs and I took requests from the audience," he told biographer Alan Friedman.

He graduated in law in 1961 and then set up Edilnord, a construction company, establishing himself as a residential housing developer around his native Milan.

Ten years later he launched a local cable-television outfit - Telemilano - which would grow into Italy's biggest media empire, Mediaset, controlling the country's three largest private TV stations.

His huge Fininvest holding company now has Mediaset, Italy's largest publishing house Mondadori, daily newspaper Il Giornale, AC Milan football club and dozens of other companies under its umbrella.

His children, Marina, Barbara, Pier Silvio, Eleonora and Luigi all take part in the running of his business empire.

Rise and fall of Forza Italia

In 1993, Berlusconi founded his own political party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), named after an Italian football chant.

The following year he became prime minister, heading a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.

Many hoped his business acumen could help revitalise Italy's economy. They longed for a break with the corruption and instability which had marred Italian politics for a decade.

Media captionSilvio Berlusconi was a major player in Italian politics for over 20 years

But rivalries between the three coalition leaders, coupled with Berlusconi's indictment for alleged tax fraud by a Milan court, confounded those hopes and led to the collapse of the government seven months later.

He lost the 1996 election to the left-wing Romano Prodi but by 2001 he was back in power, in coalition once more with his former partners.

Having headed the longest-serving Italian government since World War Two, he was again defeated by Mr Prodi in 2006.

He returned to office in 2008 at the helm of a revamped party, renamed the People of Freedom (PDL).

His support drained away in 2011, as the country's borrowing costs rocketed at the height of the eurozone debt crisis, and he resigned after losing his parliamentary majority.

Image copyright AP
Image caption He was once hit in the face by a man with psychiatric problems but stood defiantly in front of supporters

Initially his party supported the technocratic government of Mario Monti and his reform programme.

But in December 2012, his PDL withdrew its backing, forcing an early election.

In February 2013, he showed he had not lost his touch when he closed a huge gap to come within 1% of winning a general election - close enough to play a part in the governing coalition.

But after an uncomfortable period when the PDL backed Enrico Letta's government, the party split and Berlusconi relaunched it under the old name, Forza Italia. Opinion polls now place Forza Italia well behind the other big parties.

Milanese courtroom dramas

Much of Berlusconi's political career ran in tandem with a litany of legal battles. A native of Milan, he frequently complained of being victimised by its legal authorities.

In 2009, he estimated that over 20 years he had made 2,500 court appearances in 106 trials, at a legal cost of €200m.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Berlusconi eventually carried out community service as part of his conviction for tax fraud

He denied embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting, and attempting to bribe a judge. And on numerous occasions he was acquitted, had convictions overturned or watched them expire under a statute of limitations.

But he received a setback when in 2011 the Constitutional Court struck down part of a law granting him and other senior ministers temporary immunity.

From now on it was up to individual trial judges to decide.

By the end of the year he was out of power and in October 2012 he was given four years for tax fraud and barred from public office.

But it was not until 1 August 2013 that Italy's supreme court upheld the verdict. Berlusconi declared his innocence and spoke of a "judicial coup".

Because he was over 75, he did not go to jail but did community service, working four hours a week with elderly dementia patients at a Catholic care home near Milan.

The many trials of Berlusconi

Berlusconi's women and bunga-bunga parties

Berlusconi's struggles in the political arena and the courtroom have been accompanied by a string of lascivious reports about his private life.

He met second wife Veronica Lario after she performed topless in a play.

When he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of aspiring model Noemi Letizia, she decided to divorce him and also accused him of selecting a "shamelessly trashy" list of candidates for the European parliament.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Both Silvio Berlusconi and Karima El Mahroug denied they had sex

But his reputation was tarnished most by allegations of raunchy "bunga-bunga" parties at his private villa attended by showgirls. The reports culminated in a conviction of paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

An explanation of bunga bunga

In October 2010, it emerged that Silvio Berlusconi had called a police station asking for the release of a 17-year-old girl, Karima "Ruby" El Mahroug.

She was being held for theft and was also said to have attended his "bunga-bunga" parties.

In June 2013 he was found guilty of paying her for sex, and of abuse of power. The case was eventually overturned in 2014.

Berlusconi has always maintained he is "no saint" but firmly denies having ever paid for sex with a woman, saying: "I never understood where the satisfaction is when you're missing the pleasure of conquest."

His turn of phrase has always delighted like-thinkers and horrified critics. In one of his most recent examples, he said his family was so persecuted they felt "like the families of Jews... under Hitler's regime". The remark drew condemnation from Italian Jews.

In December 2009, he was assaulted in a street in Milan - hit in the face with a souvenir of Milan cathedral, by a mentally disturbed man. With a bloodied face and broken teeth, he got out of the car into which he had been bundled by security guards to show his defiance.

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