‘Huge void’: Berlusconi dies after several bouts of illness

Silvio Berlusconi, former Prime Minister of Italy, has passed away.

He turned 86.

The billionaire businessman created Italy’s largest media company before transforming the political landscape – while fending off multiple legal and sex scandals.

He had several bouts of ill health in recent months.

He was hospitalized in 2020 after contracting COVID-19 and described it as “perhaps the most difficult ordeal of my life”.

In April 2023, doctors revealed he was in intensive care suffering from leukemia and a lung infection.

He was admitted to a hospital in Milan on Friday for what aides said were pre-scheduled tests related to his leukaemia.

Berlusconi’s death leaves a “huge void” because he was a great man, Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said on Twitter on Monday.

“I loved him very much. Farewell Silvio,” Crosetto wrote.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party was a coalition partner with current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a far-right leader who came to power last year, although he held no government position.

Alan Friedman, who wrote a biography of Berlusconi titled My Way, told Al Jazeera that the late prime minister was a “very historic figure in post-war Italian history.”

“Berlusconi was a controversial figure,” he said. “In many ways, he was the original populist in Italy in the 1990s. Although he was controversial, he was also well loved by his followers.”

Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Sardinia, said Berlusconi had a “silent night”.

“But this morning it went really fast. His close relatives, his brother, were all summoned. And soon after, the hospital issued a statement that Berlusconi had died after battling this form of leukemia, which had left him hospitalized for about six weeks earlier this year.

“He was considered a kingmaker in politics. His party, the right-wing coalition, is still in power under Meloni’s leadership. He is someone who has had a huge impact on Italian politics. He was the longest serving prime minister. But he also influenced Italians on a daily basis, because he also transformed television with his group Mediaset. Rightly or wrongly, he has influenced the Italian media and way of life.”

(Al Jazeera)

Years of scandals

As Berlusconi got older, some mocked his perpetual tan, hair transplants, and live-in girlfriends who were decades younger. For years, however, Berlusconi seemed untouchable despite the personal scandals.

Criminal cases were initiated, but ended in dismissals as statutes of limitations expired in Italy’s sluggish justice system, or he prevailed on appeal.

The investigation focused on the magnate’s steamy so-called “bunga bunga” parties, involving young women and children, or his companies, including the AC Milan football team, the three largest private TV channels, magazines and a daily newspaper of the country, and advertising and film companies. .

Only one led to a conviction: a tax fraud case that arose from the sale of film rights in his business empire. The conviction was upheld by Italy’s top criminal court in 2013, but he was spared from prison due to his age (76) and ordered to do community service by assisting Alzheimer’s patients.

He continued to be stripped of his Senate seat and banned from holding or holding public office for six years under anti-corruption laws.

He remained at the helm of Forza Italia, the centre-right party he founded when he entered politics in the 1990s, calling to a football cheer “Let’s go, Italy.” With no groomed successor in sight, voters began to abandon it.

He eventually returned to office – he was elected to the European Parliament at the age of 82 and to the Italian Senate last year.

Berlusconi’s party has been eclipsed as the dominant force on Italy’s political right: first by the League, led by anti-migrant populist Matteo Salvini, then by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, with roots in neo-fascism. After the 2022 elections, Meloni formed a governing coalition with their help.

He also suffered personal humiliations.

Berlusconi lost his position as Italy’s richest man, though his sprawling media holdings and luxury real estate made him a billionaire several times over.

“He will be regarded as a controversial figure, who has never really achieved anything in terms of economic policy. [or by] implement major reforms in Italy. And he was mostly interested in protecting himself. So he will be considered a brilliant but flawed figure in history,” said Friedman, the author.