The strange rebirth of Silvio Berlusconi

Six years after resigning as Italy's Prime Minister, and five after being convicted of tax fraud, the narcissistic 81-year-old is back at the centre of his country’s politics.

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The Halloween film franchise depicts the immortal supervillain Michael Myers. Whatever force is deployed against him – bullets, blades, fire – he always survives apparent death.

One is reminded of Myers when contemplating the fortunes of Silvio Berlusconi (whose surgically frozen face resembles the character’s mask). Six years after he resigned as prime minister of Italy – having been accused of sex with an underage prostitute – and five years after he was convicted of tax fraud, the 81-year-old is once more at the centre of his country’s labyrinthine politics.

Though Berlusconi is legally barred from holding office until 2019 (a judgment against which he is appealing at the European Court of Human Rights), he remains the president of Forza Italia, the centre-right party he founded in 1993. An alliance between Forza, the xenophobic Northern League and the far-right Brothers of Italy is expected to win the most seats at the Italian general election on 4 March (the conservative coalition triumphed in Sicily in November). Berlusconi cannot be king but he could yet be kingmaker. In common with most of its centre-left cousins, Italy’s ruling Democratic Party is struggling to poll above 25 per cent. The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) is likely to finish first (with Forza in third place) but lacks the allies required to form a government.

At the launch of his party’s election campaign last month, Berlusconi sought to reclaim the political territory colonised by his rivals. He promised a basic income of €1,000 a month for all Italians (trumping M5S’s pledge of €780 a month for those in poverty). Other idiosyncratic offerings included free veterinary treatment for pets (at Easter in 2017, Berlusconi was filmed cuddling five lambs that he “saved” from slaughter).

In European politics, Angela Merkel, who became German chancellor in 2005, is known as the “great survivor”. But Berlusconi, who first became prime minister 24 years ago, makes Merkel look like a newcomer. What explains such endurance?

Berlusconi was born in 1936 into a middle-class Milanese family. At his austere Catholic boarding school, the entrepreneurial youngster completed other pupils’ homework for money. He later funded his law degree at the University of Milan by selling vacuum cleaners door to door and crooning on Adriatic cruise ships.

Berlusconi achieved greater renown as a property developer, establishing the new town of Milano Due (“Milan Two”), and, in a prescient act, creating Italy’s first cable TV channel, Telemilano. After founding his media group Fininvest, he launched the country’s first private national network, Canale 5, and, with Murdochian ruthlessness, acquired two further channels (Italia 1 and Rete 4).

Il cavaliere (“the knight”), as Berlusconi became known, was aided by his friendship with the Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi, whose government passed an emergency decree in 1984 legalising the new broadcaster’s transmissions. This media empire, which grew to encompass Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house, and the daily newspaper Il Giornale, gifted Berlusconi formidable influence and wealth (with assets of $7bn, he remains Italy’s fifth-richest man and the world’s 199th).

Among his other holdings was AC Milan, one of the world’s pre-eminent football clubs. In 1993, Berlusconi borrowed a supporters’ chant (Forza Italia – “Forward Italy”) for the name of his new party. The movement claimed the ground lost by the country’s Christian Democratic elite during the 1992 tangentopoli (“bribeville”) scandal, which shed light on mass political corruption.

In May 1994, a mere five months after the creation of Forza, Berlusconi became prime minister. Decades before President Emmanuel Macron’s similarly named En Marche! (“Forward!”) in France, Forza showed the potency of a personality-driven, ideologically diffuse machine.

Though Berlusconi’s governing coalition collapsed after just eight months, he served two further terms as prime minister (2001-06 and 2008-11), becoming Italy’s third-longest-serving post-unification leader (surpassed only by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Giolitti).

Like Donald Trump, whose 2016 election he welcomed, Berlusconi is an unashamed narcissist (“I am the Jesus Christ of politics… I sacrifice myself for everyone,” he declared in 2006). He is also a supreme opportunist and a Caligulan philanderer. But, like Trump, he has retained a loyal support base by casting himself as the victim of a “liberal establishment” and citing his personal wealth as proof of his economic acumen.

On 1 February, Berlusconi will stand trial for allegedly bribing a piano player at his “bunga bunga” parties to give false witness. But for a man of the politician’s epic self-regard, retreat is not an option.

Later this year, a new Halloween film will be released with a twist: Myers will no longer be immortal. Berlusconi, however, is proving harder to consign to the grave.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old