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Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former showman leader, battled a string of scandals to dominate politics for decades

Rome (CNN) — Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant billionaire and former Italian prime minister who once described himself as the “Jesus Christ of politics,” has died at a Milan hospital at the age of 86, his press office confirmed on Monday.

Berlusconi, who had a recent history of health issues, had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital said. He had been admitted to the hospital before with breathing problems, and attended a check-up there on Friday.

The politician, who was long regarded as Italy’s most colorful public figure, was elected prime minister three times and served for a total of nine years, longer than anyone since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Affectionately nicknamed “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight), his career was marked by a series of political, financial and personal scandals, many of which landed him in court. 

He was tried on charges ranging from tax evasion and bribery to corruption and having sex with an underage prostitute. But only one case stuck – a 2012 conviction for tax evasion in a deal involving television rights. 

Berlusconi was voted out of parliament in 2013. But never one to give up the fight, he re-emerged in early 2018 as a kind of grandfatherly elder statesman, the kingmaker of a right-wing alliance involving his Forza Italia party.

After the Court of Milan granted him “rehabilitation” later that year, effectively lifting the ban on him re-entering politics that was in place following his 2012 tax fraud conviction, he announced he would run for a seat in the European Parliament.

He was elected in May 2019, at 83 years old, and remained in office as a Member of the European Parliament at the time of his death.

Berlusconi also led his Forza Italia party, which he revived in 2013 after leaving the People of Freedom party, to victory with the center-right coalition with Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini in September 2022, though he did not have a government portfolio.

Beppe Severgnini, a columnist and author of a book on Berlusconi, described the politician as a “protopopulist” whose success had paved the way for leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Britain’s Boris Johnson and former US President Donald Trump.

“Berlusconi was actually less arrogant and less obnoxious than most but nonetheless he started it all,” Severgnini said.

“The legacy of Berlusconi was he could read the weaknesses and temptations of a nation. That’s what he really is a master of. He absolved us of all our sins, we were acquitted even before we committed those sins, and he was not a leader, he was a follower in a way, he followed the ‘pancia’ – the guts of Italy.”

A state funeral will be held Wednesday, according to the state-owned public broadcaster RAI, citing the president of the Senate.

Italy’s current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, said on Monday that her longtime ally was “above all a fighter.”

“He was a man who was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs. And it was exactly that courage and that determination that made him one of the most influential men in the history of Italy,” Meloni said.

Property developer to political power

Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi was first to make his name as a business tycoon, at one point becoming the richest man in Italy.

He gave notice early of his showman side by working as a lounge-room crooner aboard a cruise ship to help attend university, where he studied law.

Various low-level commercial enterprises followed before the fledgling entrepreneur enjoyed his first real success in property development in the late 1960s when he was involved in a project to build Milano Two – nearly 4,000 flats – outside Milan.

After amassing a fortune from his property portfolio in the 1970s, he diversified his interests by setting up a TV cable company, Telemilano, and buying two other cable channels in an effort to break the national TV monopoly in Italy. In 1978, these channels were incorporated into his newly formed Fininvest group, which included department stores, insurance companies and even AC Milan – one of the world’s biggest football clubs, which he owned for 31 years. 

Berlusconi turned his attention to politics in 1993 when he formed the center-right Forza Italia Party, named for “Forza, Italia!” (Go, Italy!), a chant heard at Italian national soccer team games. 

The following year, in a snap election, he became prime minister. However, a dispute with his right-wing coalition partners from the Northern League Party, as well as an indictment for alleged tax fraud, ended Berlusconi’s tenure in the job after barely seven months. He was acquitted on appeal in 2000 after the statute of limitations had expired.

After defeat in the 1996 election to his political nemesis, Romano Prodi, he became embroiled in other financial scandals, including a charge of bribing tax inspectors. He denied any wrongdoing and was cleared again on appeal in 2000.

His fortunes turned again in 2001 when he was sworn in as prime minister for a second time. But Prodi – a former European Commission president – ended Berlusconi’s more successful reign with his center-left Union coalition victory in 2006. At that time, the tycoon had presided over the longest-serving post-war Italian government.

Despite having a pacemaker implanted to regulate his heartbeat after he collapsed during a political rally, he refused to slow down. Sporting a hair transplant, cosmetic surgery and a tan, Berlusconi returned to power for a third time in 2008 under the banner of the newly created People of Freedom party, which he left in 2013 when he created his Forza Italia party.

Ebbing authority

The next year proved to be one of extremes for the veteran politician. He was praised for his handling of the devastating earthquake that struck the Italian town of L’Aquila in April 2009, and survived criticism after urging survivors to see their plight like “a weekend of camping.”

But the following month, Berlusconi’s second wife, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce – alleging her then 73-year-old husband had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model whose birthday party he had attended. Berlusconi said she was the daughter of a friend and that he had done nothing wrong.

In December that year, a man with a history of mental illness hit Berlusconi in the face with a replica of Milan’s cathedral at a campaign rally, breaking several of his teeth and fracturing his nose. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the irrepressible Berlusconi continued to shake hands with supporters for “a couple of minutes” after being hit.

With the country’s economy reeling amid the financial crisis, pressure on Berlusconi grew. Gianfranco Fini – a former party ally – lashed out, accusing him of a lack of attention to the economy and structural reforms that Italy needs. The PM survived three votes of confidence in Parliament during 2010 and 2011, winning one by just three votes, but his authority continued to ebb.

Economists said Berlusconi commanded neither sufficient political authority to push through spending cuts nor the moral high ground to squeeze more taxes out of Italians while he faced trial on various charges. Other European leaders criticized him for failing to implement economic reform with sufficient urgency. 

He resigned in November 2011, hours after the Italian lower house of parliament approved a series of austerity measures demanded by Europe to shore up confidence in the country’s economy.

Meanwhile, the politician faced a serious personal challenge with charges of sex with an underage nightclub dancer at his lavish “bunga-bunga” parties.

He was found guilty in 2013 of paying for sex with a minor, 17-year-old Karima el Mahroug, and abuse of power. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but an appeals court later overturned the conviction.

Following his tax fraud conviction in 2012, Berlusconi was given a four-year prison sentence. However, he got away with a year of community service because in Italy, those over 70 do not generally go to jail.

Berlusconi also made headlines in 2022 when he disclosed he had reestablished a friendship with Vladimir Putin after the Russian president sent him 20 bottles of vodka for his birthday. He later criticized Ukraine president Volodymr Zelensky for “starting the war,” which put him at odds with his coalition partner and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

‘Nobel prize for salesmanship’

Perma-tanned and with a whiter-than-white smile, Berlusconi was never shy of the camera, or of blowing his own trumpet. Besides comparing himself with Jesus Christ at a dinner with supporters in 2006, he also once said he was “the best political leader in Europe and the world.” 

According to Severgnini, Berlusconi was the ultimate salesman and knew that Italians had long been sympathetic to the idea of “il signore,” the powerful man.

“He also realized you can use religion and God in a certain way, he did that too. He also realized that women and sexual attraction is a powerful fuel and can be used in politics, he did that,” Severgnini said. “If there was a Nobel prize for salesmanship he would have won.”

Throughout his political career, Berlusconi’s penchant for much younger women was overlooked by his often traditionally Catholic support base. His most recent partner, Francesca Pascale, was nearly 50 years younger than him.

But in Severgnini’s view, the politician paid a price for his apparent inability to resist attractive young women.

“The thing with young women was what brought him down. Always younger, like young dancers out of nowhere, TV girls, all those people – he had no discipline and he was tempted. He was totally out of control. This was his downfall,” he said.

Severgnini believes Berlusconi’s 20-year spell in power – particularly from 2001 to 2006, when he held a majority – should be considered as a time of wasted opportunity both for him and for Italy. 

But, he said, the former prime minister will not be forgotten. 

“The period between 1994 and 2011 will be marked by Berlusconi. Italians never forget that there is an operatic quality of politics: we cheer our tenor until we boo him off stage,” he said.

“But we do remember our great tenors, Del Monaco, Pavarotti, (and) so we will remember our tenor of politics. It’s impossible to forget him.”

Berlusconi leaves behind five children: Piersilvio and Marina from his first marriage to Carla Dall’Oglio, which ended in 1985, and Luigi, Eleonora and Barbara from his marriage to Veronica Lario, which ended in 2012.

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