Over a month has passed since the death of Silvio Berlusconi. A man who it’s fair to say polarised opinion. In the wake of his passing, there are those who have been damning in their criticism; blaming him for overseeing a cataclysmic period in Italian politics. There are others though who have glamorised his spectre, eulogising about how he changed the political landscape, praising his business acumen and lauding his accomplishments within the world of football.
To get a closer sense of the mood in Italy in the aftermath of Silvio Berlusconi’s death, The Atlantic Dispatch caught up with Andrea Colli, Italian author, and Professor of Business History, at Bocconi University, Milan.
In general, a large part of Italians were his sympathisers
“Having been part of the political and “social” life of the country, the only thing you could not expect is indifference,” Andrea explains. The country as a whole got the news in two different ways. Some of his political opponents were relieved by the fact that this man was the party, literally, and will be difficult to find a credible leader; the party will therefore implode with damages for the government. Personally, I do not see this too much since Meloni’s consensus is very high.”
Since his death, Berlusconi has been described as a man who possessed boundless ambition and entrepreneurial spirit, reminiscent of a charismatic impresario and seduced a nation. He has been depicted in some quarters as the media tycoon, who built a vast empire encompassing television networks, publishing houses, and sports teams, creating a media landscape where he could shape public opinion and command attention.
Many commentators have spoken of how he possessed an innate ability to captivate audiences, employing his charm and charisma to win hearts and sway minds. Is that though how a majority of Italians saw him? “In general, a large part of Italians were his sympathisers and supporters notwithstanding his selfish political approach,” Andrea tells us. He represented a charming way to run life and politics and a primary example of “optimistic populism”, that is: I am a successful entrepreneur, I know how to run this country well, different from these politicians.”
He understood that politics could be used for his own interests
As Berlusconi stepped onto the political stage, his story took a remarkable turn. He founded the centre-right political party, Forza Italia, which quickly became a formidable force in Italian politics. Like a skilled performer, he knew how to connect with the aspirations of the Italian people, promising a brighter future and a departure from the status quo.
He would go on to serve as Prime Minister of Italy on three separate occasions, where his tenure was marked by controversial policies, ambitious economic reforms, and a penchant for the spotlight. His flamboyant style, extravagant lifestyle, and unabashed self-confidence were often used to excuse the bluster and bad policies.
Andrea is a little more forthcoming on his thoughts toward Berlusconi as a politician, “To be honest, he will not be remembered as a statesman for sure. He will be remembered as a successful entrepreneur who at a certain point tried to go into politics in order to do something good but soon understood that politics could be used for his own interests.”
Berlusconi’s political journey as we know was not without its share of challenges. Legal battles and scandals became part of his narrative, casting a shadow over his legacy. From allegations of corruption and bribery to charges of tax evasion and his infamous “Bunga Bunga” scandal, his personal life often became entangled with his political career.
The term “Bunga Bunga” itself was reportedly coined by Berlusconi to refer to a type of provocative and risqué entertainment that occurred at these parties. While the exact nature of these activities remains disputed, it was widely reported in the media that the events involved a combination of young women, often aspiring models or showgirls, who performed dance routines and engaged in suggestive behaviour.
The scandal gained international attention and sparked a significant amount of controversy and criticism. Critics argued that the parties were a manifestation of Berlusconi’s inappropriate behaviour, highlighting concerns about his moral conduct and the influence he exerted over Italian politics.
He abused public spending
The infamous “Bunga Bunga” parties, also shed light on other aspects of Berlusconi’s personal life. It revealed allegations of his involvement with an underage prostitute, Karima El Mahroug, also known as “Ruby Heartstealer.” Berlusconi was accused of abuse of power for allegedly intervening in a legal case to secure her release after she was detained by the police.
The scandal resulted in a number of legal proceedings against Berlusconi. In 2013, he was found guilty of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power. However, the conviction was later overturned by an appeals court.
The “Bunga Bunga” scandal and the ensuing legal battles tarnished Berlusconi’s reputation and added to the controversies that surrounded his political career. While the full extent of the events and their implications remains a matter of debate, the term “Bunga Bunga” has become synonymous with the scandal that rocked Italian politics and captured the attention of the international media.
Despite a number of scandals and debate about whether he was a legitimate statesman, Berlusconi was still incredibly elected as Prime Minister on three separate occasions. For Andrea, how was this possible? “He privatised politics a lot, first of all. Then brought political relationships with allies and adversaries back to personalism. He was elected Prime Minister three times, with an enormous political consensus, in part due to the political weakness of the opposition, his personal charisma, and the diffuse idea that ‘he knows how to run a business, therefore he will be able to make this country work’. Add to this that he abused public spending when in charge.”
I do Not See Any Genuine Achievements
The reaction to his death within the footballing fraternity was one that was arguably met with sadness. Under Berlusconi’s ownership, AC Milan became one of the most powerful clubs in Europe and he cemented their status as a global brand.
There were countless Serie A Titles, and European Success followed. he managed to attract some of the world’s best players and reputable managers, during a period of domination, that the club hasn’t seen since.
There is the thought that many of his failings may have been forgiven due to his success in football. “This was part of his entrepreneurial capabilities. The story of AC Milan is a story inside the story. When he took over Milan the team was a decent national player,” says Andrea. “He was the first to systematically plan to make it a global team, which in some way led to the globalisation of Italian soccer as a whole since other teams followed his example. Knowing Italians’ passion for soccer, I would say this had an influence on his popularity.”
It’s fair to say that Berlusconi divided opinion. While he achieved success in business and will be remembered fondly by many for his tenure at AC Milan, many of his flawed policies which damaged the Italian economy are still felt today.
With that in mind, and cutting through the bravado of his charisma, does Andrea believe that there were any genuine political accomplishments? “I do not see genuine achievements. He benefited from a good economic cycle during the 1990s and from a situation in international politics which was characterised by exceptionally low levels of turmoil.”
With thanks to Andrea Colli, Italian author and Professor of Business History at Bocconi University.