MILAN (AP) — Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire and boastful media mogul who was Italy’s longest-serving prime minister despite scandals over his sex parties and allegations of corruption, died on Monday, according to his TV station. He was 86 years old.
Mediaset announced his death with a smiling photo of the man on its homepage and the headline: “Berlusconi is dead”.
Berlusconi was admitted to San Raffaele Hospital in Milan on Friday, his second recent hospitalization for treatment of chronic leukemia. He has also suffered over the years from heart disease, prostate cancer and was hospitalized with COVID-19 in 2020.
A former cruise ship crooner, Berlusconi used his television networks and immense wealth to launch his long political career, inspiring both loyalty and revulsion.
To admirers, the three-time prime minister was a charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage. For critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy, wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses.
His centre-right Forza Italia political party was a junior partner in the government of current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a far-right leader who came to power last year, although he held no office.
His friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at odds with Meloni, a staunch supporter of Ukraine. Meloni remembered Berlusconi as “above all as a fighter”.
“He was a man who was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs. And it was exactly this courage and determination that made him one of the most influential men in the history of Italy” , Meloni told Italian television.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recalled Berlusconi’s divisive legacy on Twitter. “Silvio Berlusconi marked the history of this country. Many loved him, many hated him. Everyone must recognize that his impact on political life, but also economic, sports and television, was unprecedented.
Berlusconi often bragged about his libido and entertained friends and world leaders at so-called “bunga bunga” parties at his villas. “I love life! I love women!” he said in 2010.
In 2013, guests included an underage Moroccan dancer who prosecutors say had sex with Berlusconi in exchange for money and jewelry. After a grim trial, a court first convicted Berlusconi of paying for sex with a minor and using his office to try to cover it up. Both denied having sex and he was later acquitted.
The Catholic Church, sometimes sympathetic to his conservative politics, was outraged by his antics and his second wife of nearly 20 years divorced him. Berlusconi did not apologize, saying: “I am not a saint.”
As he got older, some made fun of his perpetual tan, hair transplants and decades younger girlfriends. For many years, however, Berlusconi seemed untouchable despite the scandals.
The investigations targeted his parties or companies, including the AC Milan football team, the country’s three largest private television channels, magazines and a daily newspaper, as well as advertising and film companies. The criminal cases either ended in dismissals in Italy’s slow-moving court system or he won on appeal.
Only one led to a conviction that stuck – a tax evasion case stemming from a sale of film rights in his business empire. The conviction was upheld in 2013 by Italy’s top criminal court, but Berlusconi was spared jail time due to his age, 76, and ordered to do community service.
Yet he was stripped of his seat in the Senate and barred from public office for six years.
He remained at the helm of Forza Italia, although voters deserted the party. He was finally elected to the European Parliament aged 82 and last year was re-elected to the Italian Senate by voters.
Born in Milan on September 29, 1936, the banker’s son obtained a law degree, sang in nightclubs and on cruise ships, then launched a construction company and built apartments for middle-class families.
His astronomical wealth came from media holdings. In the 1970s and 1980s, it circumvented the monopoly of Italian public television RAI by creating its own network of local stations. RAI and Mediaset accounted for approximately 90% of the national market in 2006.
When the corruption scandals of the 1990s decimated the political establishment, Berlusconi founded Forza Italia in 1994 – its name comes from a football cheer, “Let’s go, Italy”. His first government collapsed after eight months when an ally who led an anti-immigrant party withdrew his support. But aided by aggressive campaigning, Berlusconi won in 2001 and was in power for five years, setting a record for longest government in Italy.
As a businessman who knew the power of images, Berlusconi launched American-style campaigns that broke with the gray world of Italian politics. His opponents had to adapt.
A Group of Eight summit he organized in Genoa in 2001 was marred by violent protests. He was constantly accused of sponsoring laws to protect himself or his businesses, but insisted he always acted in the interests of all Italians.
An admirer of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Berlusconi adopted reforms that partially liberalized some of the most rigid work and pension systems in Europe.
Berlusconi saw himself as Italy’s savior against what he described as the communist threat, years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He presented himself as the target of a justice system he said was filled with leftist sympathizers.
His friendship with socialist leader and former prime minister Bettino Craxi has been widely credited with helping him become a media baron. However, Berlusconi presented himself as a self-made man.
His second term, from 2001 to 2006, was perhaps his golden age, when he became Italy’s longest-serving head of government and boosted his global profile through his friendship with US President George W. Bush. . Against opposition at home and in Europe, Berlusconi supported the US-led war in Iraq and sent 3,000 troops.
He flouted political etiquette and sparked anger with some of his comments, such as asserting after 9/11 that Western civilization was superior to Islam.
But in 2006, when Italy was derided as “the sick man of Europe”, with its economy mired in zero growth and a mounting budget deficit, Berlusconi narrowly lost the general election to the leader of centre-left Romano Prodi.
He won his last term as prime minister in 2008, reluctantly stepping down in 2011 when financial markets lost faith in his ability to prevent Italy from succumbing to the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.
His party has been eclipsed as Italy’s dominant right-wing force – first by the League, led by anti-migrant populist Matteo Salvini, then by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, with its roots in neo-fascism. After the 2022 elections, Meloni formed a coalition government with their help.
Berlusconi eventually lost his position as Italy’s richest man, although his media and luxury real estate holdings still left him several times a billionaire.
He was plagued by health concerns. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1997. In November 2006 he passed out during a speech and the following month flew to the United States, where he received a pacemaker at the Cleveland Clinic. He underwent further heart operations in 2016.
Berlusconi first married in 1965 to Carla Dall’Oglio, and their two children, Marina and Piersilvio, were groomed to take on leadership positions in his business empire. He then married Veronica Lario in 1990, and they had three children, Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi.
They also divorced and at the time of his death he was in a relationship with Marta Fascina, 33, who was elected to parliament last year for her party.
Despite the scandal, he insisted voters admired his boldness.
“The majority of Italians in their hearts would like to be like me and see themselves in me and the way I behave,” he said in 2009.
D’Emilio reported from Rome. Former Associated Press Rome bureau chief Victor L. Simpson contributed.