Berlusconi, Silvio

(1936– )
   A Milanese businessman who created Italy’s first nationwide private television (TV) network, Silvio Berlusconi has led Forza Italia since its genesis in 1993 and is one of the democratic world’s most controversial politicians. Berlusconi made his first fortune in real estate dealings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1977, he acquired his first media holding, a share in Indro Montanelli’s anticommunist newspaper Il Giornale Nuovo. End of the 1970s, he launched his first private TV company. By 1980, his flagship company, Canale 5, went on the air—the first private TVnetwork to have a national audience. In subsequent years, Berlusconi added two more private TV companies, Italia 1 and Rete 4, to his empire. This growing presence in the media sector was judged to be illegal by the courts in 1984; briefly, Berlusconi’s TV channels were taken off the air. His close personal and political links with the then prime minister, Bettino Craxi, proved their worth, however. The Craxi government passed a decree law in October 1984, swiftly baptized the “Berlusconi Law,” which retroactively legalized Berlusconi’s activities. In the mid- and late 1980s, Berlusconi added the AC Milan soccer team and the giant Mondadori publishing corporation to his holdings. He also established a near-monopoly over the production and sale of TVadvertising, and started (less successful) TVcompanies in France and Spain. By 1990, he was the owner of one of the largest private companies in the world. In August 1990, the passage of a toothless law regulating media ownership appeared to have consolidated his dominance of the Italian private media for good. Berlusconi was forced to sell his stake in Il Giornale to his brother Paolo, but the right of a private entrepreneur to own three national television networks was protected by the new law. The collapse of the Italian political system and Craxi’s disgrace represented a threat to Berlusconi. He could be sure that a leftist government would attempt to break his monopoly on the media market. This appears to be one of the main reasons why, in December 1993, with a marketing blitz that recalled the launch of a new soap powder rather than a political party, Berlusconi founded Forza Italia and nominated himself as a potential prime minister. Skillfully allying himself with the Lega Nord/Northern League (LN) in northern Italy and with the Alleanza Nazionale/National Alliance (AN) in the South, Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, the Polo della liberta, won an astonishing victory in elections to the Chamber of Deputies in March 1994. Less than four months after its launch, Forza Italia became Italy’s largest political party. Berlusconi has been the leader of Italy’s political right ever since. His first government lasted only eight months (May–December 1994), and his coalition was narrowly defeated in the general elections of April 1996, but in the late 1990s he constructed the Casa delle Liberta/House of Freedoms (CDL) and led this coalition to a striking victory in the general elections of May 2001. Berlusconi became prime minister and governed for a full parliamentary term until April 2006, a feat previously managed in the postwar period only by Alcide De Gasperi (1948–1953).
   Berlusconi’s time in politics has been marred by problems with the law and by the inherent conflict of interest in his dual role as media entrepreneur and politician. For these reasons, the authoritative periodical The Economist described him as “unfit to lead Italy” prior to the 2001 elections. During his political career, Berlusconi has been investigated for a dozen different offenses, including drug trafficking, links with the mafia, perjury, corruption of judges, bribery of politicians, and, most commonly, fraudulent accounting. Some of these allegations were clearly false: No evidence was found to back the drugs charges and the accusations of mafia connections were not substantiated. Other charges were seemingly true. Berlusconi has been found guilty of bribing Bettino Craxi of fraudulent accounting, and of having given false testimony about his membership in the subversive Propaganda Duemasonic lodge. Amnesties and recognition, by the legal authorities, of “extenuating circumstances” have alone kept him out of prison; he also used his coalition’s substantial parliamentary majority between 2001 and 2006 to pass legislation retrospectively decriminalizing the law on fraudulent accounting and to obtain for himself a temporary amnesty from prosecution. Berlusconi remains under investigation for tax fraud, corrupting a British tax lawyer, and violations of Spanish antimonopoly legislation. Berlusconi’s former lawyer and close advisor, Cesare Previti, was finally convicted in 2005, after a 10-year legal marathon, of bribing a judge on Berlusconi’s behalf.
   Berlusconi’s premiership was also controversial for his unorthodox personal diplomacy. In June 2003, he opened the six-month Italian presidency of the European Union (EU) with a long harangue against a socialist deputy of the European Parliament who had heckled his speech: Berlusconi likened the deputy to a concentrationcamp commandant, causing a furor across Europe. Berlusconi also vaunted his supposedly warm personal friendships with President George W. Bush and with Russian premier Vladimir Putin and, in pursuit of these friendships, followed a much less Eurocentric foreign policy than any of his predecessors as premier. Under Berlusconi’s leadership, Italy’s public finances, after a decade of slow improvement, began to worsen again. Berlusconi’s five-year government saw low economic growth and tepid increases in state revenue. Public spending, by contrast, increased. Italy’s sovereign debt rating was cut in 2004 and again in October 2006 by leading international ratings agencies. Despite these policy failings, Berlusconi remains a formidable communicator and a shrewd political operator. During the 2006 election campaign, his energetic, populist style unquestionably won votes for Forza Italia, which scored 23 percent and retained its position as Italy’s largest party by a substantial margin. There is no doubt that a large segment of the Italian electorate identifies with Berlusconi and is disposed to forgive both his political errors and his somewhat shady past.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

Look at other dictionaries:

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