What Lessons Can Be Learned from Silvio Berlusconi's Political Career


This September 29, Silvio Berlusconi would have celebrated his 87th birthday. In a column for GURU, NES Professor Michele Valsecchi recalls his career and talks about the heritage he left. How could succeed so quickly upon entering politics? Does it look like his entry benefited Italians? Did he leave a mark in international politics? Do we see other Berlusconi-like politicians in current politics? Professor Valsecchi answers these questions in his column.


Silvio Berlusconi passed away on June 12, 2023, at the age of 86. He unquestionably stood out as the most controversial Italian politician in the last 30 years, and one of the most prominent figures on the global political stage whose life generated countless newspapers, articles, and books.

Before delving further, let's address the question: 'Why should I invest time in reading an extensive column about a deceased foreign politician?' The answer lies in the fact that Berlusconi's Italy often functioned as a 'laboratory' that foreshadowed various political dynamics and figures that subsequently emerged in Europe, the United States and other regions. Many who initially dismissed Berlusconi as an exclusively Italian phenomenon later found similar figures in their own political landscapes.

Career start

Berlusconi commenced his business journey as an extraordinarily successful real estate entrepreneur immediately after graduating from university in 1961. A pinnacle moment during this phase was undoubtedly his construction, from scratch, of an entire Milan neighborhood known as 'Milano 2.'

Transitioning from real estate, Berlusconi entered the mass media sector. Following the liberalization of the television industry in 1976, he established the first private TV conglomerate by acquiring his initial TV channel, "Canale 5", in 1980. This was followed by "Italia 1" in 1982 and "Rete 4" in 1984. Although TV licenses were only local (i.e., private TV channels were not supposed to broadcast nationally), Berlusconi effectively circumvented this limitation by creating a network of local broadcasters that relayed his programs. This subterfuge led to his initial legal issues, from which he extricated himself with the intervention of Italy's Prime Minister Bettino Craxi (who, in 1984, even became the godfather of one of Berlusconi children).

Beyond TV channels, one cannot overlook his acquisition of the national newspaper 'Il Giornale' in the late 1970s and the major publishing company 'Mondadori' in 1990. Additionally, he purchased the football team AC Milan in 1986, which achieved international success and remained intertwined with his political journey until its sale in 2017. Berlusconi's economic triumph positioned him as the sixth wealthiest individual in Italy and the 318th globally, boasting a net worth of USD 7.3 billion (Forbes, 2021).

While the broad strokes of his successful career are well-known, many details remain shrouded in mystery, especially when it comes to his ability to raise funds and to who those funds effectively belonged to. In fact, besides an initial key help from a banker connected to Berlusconi’s father to finance real estates, later acquisitions were often financed via financial flows from Switzerland. Over the years, numerous journalists and prosecutors attempted to unveil these details, but they were thwarted by banking secrecy laws impeding access to Swiss banks and Italian laws prohibiting relevant inquiries. Some theories suggest that criminal organizations and even the Vatican Bank (IOR) were involved in these financial maneuvers. These allegations were also based on the fact that Berlusconi did hire a mafia boss as “horse keeper” in his villa. Nonetheless, to the best of my knowledge, these allegations were never substantiated. However, what was proven, and acknowledged by Berlusconi, was his affiliation with a secret Masonic lodge called 'P2' from 1978 to 1982, which boasted notable figures from journalism, banking, the military, and politics.


Entry into Politics

In 1992, the corruption scandal 'Tangentopoli' dismantled the long-standing political parties, including the party led by Berlusconi's friend Bettino Craxi, the secretary of the Socialist Party (PSI). This left Berlusconi devoid of the political connections that had aided him over the previous decade. Amid this upheaval, he made the pivotal decision to enter politics in 1993. His entry was a resounding success: within months, he established a new party, Forza Italia, and emerged victorious in the 1994 elections alongside two other parties. Several factors contributed to his triumph: adeptly utilizing his image as a prosperous entrepreneur, conveying messages like 'I am rich, so I cannot be bought' and 'As a self-made individual, if I could generate wealth for myself, I can do the same for all Italians.' His language was straightforward, down-to-earth, aggressive, and entertaining, indicating a deeper understanding of mass media (TV) compared to his rivals. He cleverly harnessed his TV channels for extensive media campaigns, portraying his primary opponent, the Left Democrat Party (PDS) as 'Communists,' (with a clear negative connotation). His new party was structured like a business, with many of his employees transitioning into political roles, featuring a hierarchical and sales-oriented structure. The utilization of media for intensive political campaigning highlighted an inherent conflict of interest, a theme that persisted throughout his political career.

Despite his electoral victory, Berlusconi and several of his allies lacked political experience, resulting in a collapse of the coalition just a year later (1995). New elections were held in 1996, resulting in Berlusconi's defeat and the triumph of the center-left coalition. At that time, Italy faced a significant challenge: stabilizing the national finances (reducing spending and public debt) to meet the criteria for joining the Eurozone. The center-left coalition implemented stringent austerity measures that achieved the goal but also aggravated voters just ahead of the subsequent elections (2001).


Political longevity and manipulation of media against both foes and allies

In the 2001 elections, Berlusconi secured victory once more. This time, he wielded greater experience, strategically assuming control of public TV channels by replacing key directors. This maneuver reshaped the political narrative broadcasted by public TV. Among various anecdotes, a standout moment occurred in 2002 when he expressed deep disappointment with three political commentators who held prime-time shows on public TV. Within days, all three commentators vanished from the TV schedule. Berlusconi also realized that his media could be wielded not solely against adversaries, but, when necessary, against allies as well. This manipulation of mass media was so pronounced that in 2004, Freedom House downgraded Italy's information status from 'free' to 'partly free.'

Despite these circumstances, his government exhibited remarkable stability. Compared to the post-World War II average tenure of 12 months for Italian governments, his administration lasted the full five years (excluding a minor cabinet reshuffle). Internationally, his government maintained a pragmatic approach while making controversial choices such as supporting the invasion of Iraq. Domestically, he pushed for (or attempted to push for) several laws tailored to his benefit, aiming to slow or halt investigations and trials pursued by public prosecutors. Examples include the decriminalization of accounting frauds in 2002, a prohibition on subjecting top government officials (including the prime minister) to trial in 2003, and various reductions of the statute of limitations, effectively extinguishing multiple legal cases against him. 

In terms of economic policies, somewhat surprisingly for those expected strong pro-market reforms from a center-right wing government, Berlusconi failed to significantly liberalize markets, partially due to his conflict of interest in some sectors (e.g., the media) and partly because of inability and/or unwillingness to break exist oligopolies in other sectors. Subsequently, Berlusconi lost the subsequent elections in 2006.

Alitalia: an illustration of the contrast between pro-market rhetoric and actual policy choicesAn illustration of the contrast between pro-market rhetoric and actual policy choices is the sale of the flagship airline company Alitalia, which was owned by the State. During 2006-2008, the left wing government arranged a deal to sell Alitalia to Air France-KLM. However, in 2008, immediately after winning elections, Berlusconi scrapped the deal to sell to a group of Italian entrepreneurs with no experience in the sector at a cheaper price. After the sale, lack of experience of the entrepreneurs quickly showed up, obliging the State to inject more financial aid (about 500 mln EUR) in the company to safeguard its employees.


Return to government

In 2008, Berlusconi emerged victorious again. His ensuing government was characterized by a lack of fiscal discipline, resulting in an increase in public debt from 106% to 120% of GDP, along with sexual scandals. In 2009, journalistic reports suggested potential involvement with underage women, allegations reiterated by his wife, who initiated divorce proceedings. These allegations evolved into a political scandal, given the potential illegality of engaging in sexual relationships with minors, reportedly orchestrated through intermediaries in exchange for favors.

Ultimately, his resignation as Prime Minister in 2011 was primarily due to his inability to convince international investors of the country's capacity to foster economic growth and repay public debt. The increasing spread between Italian and German treasury bonds reached unsustainable levels, sparking rumors of Italy's potential exit from the Eurozone or even a declaration of default. Consequently, the President of the Republic intervened, facilitating the transition to a technocratic government led by Mario Monti until the elections in 2013. During this period, Berlusconi responsibly provided external support to the government, alongside the center-left coalition, assisting the nation in navigating challenging waters.


Late political career and legal issues

In 2013, new elections took place, resulting in disappointing outcomes. However, this was not Berlusconi's most pressing challenge. In the summer of 2013, he was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years in prison, which was later commuted to community service. Additionally, he was automatically barred from holding public office for two years. He later returned as a senator and remained a significant figure in the political arena, although he never regained the prominence he once held. Younger politicians from the center-right coalition, including Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, took center stage. The fear of 'communists' had evolved into a 'fear of immigrants.'


Berlusconi's legacy: Trump and other populists

In a narrow sense, Berlusconi did not leave a lasting political legacy. In the later years of his life, his party dwindled to a minor member of the center-right coalition, garnering only single-digit support. Throughout the years, attempts to cultivate a political successor proved futile, and none of his five children have entered politics thus far.

However, in a broader context, Berlusconi leaves a substantial legacy. He is arguably the pioneer of populism in the television era. In the 2000s, international political commentators dismissed his rise as an idiosyncrasy limited to Italy. The subsequent emergence of other Western populists like Trump and Bolsonaro suggests that Berlusconi's business-like populism was not an Italian idiosyncrasy. He was a businessman who recognized an opening - the inability of traditional parties to adapt to mass media - and capitalized on it. 

While today's mass media landscape has evolved (with the rise of social media platforms replacing TV as dominant media), some dynamics persist: relatable language for the masses, a business-oriented approach to disrupt established elites, an aggressive stance against political adversaries, a disregard for checks and balances, and comfort navigating ethical grey areas.