Black Knight and Pied Piper. Silvio Berlusconi: Populist Pioneer or Symptom of Italy’s Crisis?

By Stefano Bottoni, University of Florence

The passing away of Italian businessman, football club owner, media tycoon, and politician Silvio Berlusconi on June 12 at the age of 86 was soon transformed from a cause for private mourning to a national and even global public event. The right-wing Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni declared national mourning on the day of Berlusconi’s funeral. For almost a week, various news reports and what should be called celebrations of Silvio Berlusconi’s personality practically monopolized Italian media spaces. However, his funeral, which was held in the Milan Cathedral in the presence of the main Italian state authorities alongside thousands of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and A.C. Milan football team supporters, was attended by only a few foreign heads of state and government: the Iraqi president, the Emir of Qatar and, uniquely among acting European statesmen, long-term friend and political ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

One is tempted to conclude that the ageing Berlusconi had been largely forgotten not only by the Italian electorate, as Forza Italia, the party he founded in 1993 and has chaired since, scored a disappointing 8% at the most recent national election of September 2022, but also by most of his former conservative and populist peers. In the last 10 years, which he mostly spent in opposition, the global image of Berlusconi suffered serious blows amidst corruption incidents, sex scandals, declining financial fortune and, last but not least, his vocally pro-Putin and Russian-friendly stance.

However, it would a mistake to downgrade Silvio Berlusconi’s controversial and multifaceted legacy to a nearly endless list of private scandals and cases of public mismanagement. Born to a middle-class family from downtown Milan in 1936, Berlusconi was rather a personal embodiment of Tony Judt’s postwar economic miracle. He belonged to a generation that might have suffered during the Second World War but held no responsibility for fascist rule and war crimes. Already as a teenager, Berlusconi developed a precocious and remarkable instinct for business opportunities, soon becoming one of the most successful players in the rampant real estate market and urban planning of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the second half of the 1970s, he was among the first Italian entrepreneurs to understand the power of advertising in a mass society. Circumventing a law that assigned a monopoly on radio and television frequencies to the state, he began to develop a small television broadcasting station called Telemilano, which later expanded to other areas of Northern Italy. In the early 1980s, it led to the creation of a media empire which included three nationwide TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines. In 1986, Berlusconi became owner and president of A.C. Milan, one of the most famous Italian football teams which had fallen into deep financial crisis and was lacking notable results on the pitch. Within two years, the club returned to winning the Italian championship and won back-to-back European Cups. In the meantime, Berlusconi began extending his media empire to Spain, France, and Germany.

At that time, Berlusconi’s relationship with Italian politics was limited to his proximity to the socialist party led by the Milan-born, anti-Communist and reform-minded Bettino Craxi, under whose governments Berlusconi was allowed to extend his media empire.

Like many successful entrepreneurs of his generation, Berlusconi was part of the corruption mechanisms favored by the system of mass parties that dominated Italian politics from 1945.

 According to those who knew him personally, he remained first and foremost an outstanding salesman and a man of exceptional charm. He had a natural ability to please his audiences and convince them of his ideas. Until the dramatic collapse of the First Republic, stimulated by the mani pulite (clean hands) judiciary campaign that led to thousands of investigations and arrest warrants for politicians and businessmen between early 1992 and late 1993, Berlusconi did not feel the need to take to the field to defend what he had achieved in decades of economic activity: he was part of the political system without playing an active role in it.

In the early 1990s, his network controlled almost half of the Italian media landscape and the generous advertisement revenues made him a billionaire.

 In November 1993, however, he made the decision to enter active politics by creating a new movement called Forza Italia. That fateful decision changed his life and the historical trajectory of Italy too.

The subsequent part of Berlusconi’s personal story is much better known to a general audience. He managed to win the March 1994 general elections by defeating a left-wing progressive coalition and became Prime Minister as the leader of a fuzzy coalition which included the post-fascist National Alliance and the formerly radical autonomists of the Northern League. Although his first term in power ended after only seven months, Silvio Berlusconi remained a key actor in Italian politics for the rest of his life, serving as Prime Minister another three times between 2001 and 2011.

Political scientists agree that he reshaped the language, and even the body language, of politics after the end of the traditional, ideology-driven mass parties.

Most political scientists would also claim that he was one of the first and most influential global populist leaders: Berlusconi’s charismatic power opened the way to the subsequent appearance of populist leaders all over the world.

Those assertions may indeed be true, but I would hesitate to call Berlusconi an anti-democratic leader.

His verbal exuberance and populist governmental acts rarely triggered a real menace for institutional stability and democratic governance.

Berlusconi himself wanted his movement to join the European People’s Party and repeatedly tried in the 1990s, albeit unsuccessfully, to bring forward what he called a “liberal revolution”, as he hoped that an anti-Communist, economically liberal, and pro-European conservatism might replace those political forces in post-Cold War Italy, like the communists and the Christian Democrats, whose ideological premises favored state intervention in the economy. 

Berlusconi was a major symptom of a long-term Italian crisis of political identity, economic success, and social cohesion, not its inherent cause.

More than anyone else in post-1945 Italy, Silvio Berlusconi embodied Italians’ desire for success and redemption.

 He gave shape to the dreams and expectations of millions of Italians and tried to give a populist, but non-authoritarian, response to the collapse of the Italian political and economic system. This was a response based on the gains that Italy had made during the Cold War as a faithful ally within the Western military and political alliance.

Berlusconian political culture was the late but recognizable fruit of the majoritarian, pro-Western, pleasure-loving, and pre-political Italian popular sentiment. He was not a fervent Euroskeptic, nor personally intolerant or a religious fanatic. He was rather fond of consumerism and the American way of life.

He was firmly convinced that Italy should remain anchored to the same Western world, led by the United States, that he came to appreciate and love as a young man growing up in the still frugal, post-fascist Italy of the 1950s.

The close relationship that Berlusconi developed with Russian President Vladimir Putin has often been emphasized as evidence of Berlusconi’s illiberal temptation. It would be more appropriate, however, to regard it as an attempt to provide adequate political cover for the expansion of Italian companies into developing Russia than as a full-blown ideological convergence between different brands of authoritarianism. One should not forget that Berlusconi’s international political weight was always negligible, not least due to the personal blows he inflicted on himself and his country through his improper acts. German Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel in fact hold much heavier responsibilities in this regard due to their policies of appeasement that allowed Putin to conceive his anti-Western revisionist plans for former Soviet territories.

As a matter of fact, Berlusconi leaves a heavy and complex legacy on Italian politics and society. He was an excellent businessman, an extraordinary football club owner, and a poor statesman who failed to renew Italian society after the shock unleashed by “clean hands.”

Who will claim his political legacy? Forza Italia as “the illusion of a mass party” belongs to the past, and Berlusconi’s notion of a “democratic populist right” has no true heirs today. That notion, which may sound oxymoronic today, seemed plausible to many just a few decades ago. But Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is anything but.

Meloni belongs to a much younger generation and represents a quite different tradition: her cultural right-wing position comes from the anti-liberal, radical right, many members of which cultivated nostalgia for fascism. It remains unclear where her personal evolution and that of her Brothers of Italy party will end up after she has become Prime Minister and, in the current state of affairs, the most popular politician in Italy.  Those who know the internal workings of Italian politics can easily imagine that it will probably be her own allies who weaken her power or even try to overthrow her.

More importantly, however, the long-term consequences of Berlusconi’s long cultural hegemony over Italian politics are not yet clear, despite many economists agreeing that his performance as Prime Minister and economic leader was weak and even self-contradictory (Berlusconi repeatedly promised deregulation but was unable to deliver it). The outcome of the painful restructuring of the Italian economy after several decades of steady decline, at least compared to its European Union’s partners, will also depend on the Russian-Ukrainian war and its effects on the EU as a whole.

As difficult as it is to admit for those political leaders and intellectuals who consistently fought Silvio Berlusconi during his life, the Italian crisis did not begin with him and will not end with his death.

It is being fueled by long-standing structural issues such as brain drain, demographic imbalance, growing territorial divides, and social unrest that have very little to do with Berlusconi’s ultimate political failure.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Ferenc Laczó.

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