In June this year, Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time Prime Minister of Italy and businessman, passed away. However, his political legacy continues to live on through his brand of populism and his Forza Italia political party. As a politician, Berlusconi came to dominate the political scene at a time when the old socialist and communist inclinations deteriorated following the fall of the Berlin Wall and soon after the Soviet Union.
The political model Berlusconi ushered in is one most notably replicated during the premiership of Boris Johnson in the UK, a figure who openly admired the Italian leader; in Hungary with Viktor Orban; and in the United States under the infamous leadership of Donald Trump, a figure that like Berlusconi had accumulated a vast personal fortune prior to entering politics.
An article from June of this year describes the commonalities of Berlusconi, Johnson, and Trump as “opportunistic, hard-right populist-nationalist politics, spiced with braggadocio and sickly charm, to dazzle, woo and bamboozle voters”. Berlusconi’s model managed to merge together entertainment with politics. He mastered the former by association with the media empire which led to his vast fortune. Following a successful career in construction, Berlusconi entered the world of media by setting up the cable television company, TeleMilano, Italy’s first private TV channel exclusively for the apartments built by his construction firm.
Two years after founding TeleMilano, the success of the company allowed Berlusconi to form his first media group, Mediaset. If his private cable TV company provided the foundations of Berlusconi’s media success, then Mediaset was the construction that made it happen. The media group, which soon became a single national network in effect, proved to be the first serious challenge to the monopolistic grip of the state-owned Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI). At the time, RAI was the only media organisation permitted to have a national network. But through a loophole in the national legislation, Berlusconi out-manoeuvred a ban and created the first private national network by purchasing local television stations, although running the same program on each one.
As consumerism and commercialisation came to fruition in Italian society, Berlusconi’s media business model took on these fresh developments whilst moving away from the traditional cinematic focus on local Italian produce to imported films from the US, creating fresh demand. As such, Berlusconi’s televised content, described as “catchier, funnier, and flashier” than previous Italian television, helped to create a new Italian culture.
However, Berlusconi’s questionable business conduct eventually caught up with him, and from this came his initial incentive to enter politics. Faced with legal challenges that could have led to jail time, Berlusconi sought political office in an attempt to change legislation in his favour. Alongside this, Berlusconi’s rise to power also came at a time of political crisis in Italy with the Mani Pulite, or clean hands, in 1992, which saw the demise of the post-war and post-fascist First Republic. From this crisis came Berlusconi’s justification for entering politics.
The Mani Pulite was a nationwide investigation into political corruption which resulted in the arrests of numerous politicians and industrial leaders, including the 45th Prime Minister of Italy, Bettino Craxi, a personal friend of Berlusconi. Due to the deep and widespread impact of Mani Pulite, all four parties within the 1992 coalition, known as the Pentapartito, disappeared at various points.
The Pentapartito included the Italian Socialist Party, the Democratic Christian Party, The Italian Democratic Socialist Party, and the Italian Liberal Party. The Democratic Party of the Left, the post-communist evolution of the Italian Communist Party, was one of the only surviving national parties and was widely expected to win the 1994 general election. It was this expectation that Berlusconi justified his 1993 political entrance and the creation of the first Forza Italia, stating that only could prevent a communist takeover of Italy whilst boosting Italy’s economy with US-style free market economic policies.
Following his political entrance, Berlusconi obtained a loyal political following within Forza Italia across the nation and in the 1994 general election, obtained 43% of the popular vote and entered a coalition with Lega Nord. From this Berlusconi became Prime Minister for the first time, but would go on to lose in 1996, before re-entering in 2001 and serving a full term as Prime Minister to 2006, and finally serving from 2008 to 2011, a term in which he survived 53 confidence votes. Alongside this, Berlusconi served as a member of the European Parliament between 1999 and 2001, and between 2019 and 2022.
Throughout his political career, Berlusconi’s ability to merge entertainment and politics became one of his key strategies in maintaining support, as well as selling his political image through the skilful use of mass media, a strategy learnt from his media empire. In a style later replicated across the globe, Berlusconi utilised commercial advertising to produce emotive political campaigning, whilst using jokes as part of his image and in political debates, akin to Boris Johnson. Once in power, Berlusconi amplified his critical stance against the state by targeting institutions, such as utilising his previous legal troubles which led him to enter politics amongst other claims of corruption and tax fraud in arguing that such claims are examples of a legal conspiracy against not only him but the freedom of Italy. Akin to Donald Trump.
These factors accumulate to define what critics call Berlusconismo, and this is arguably the ultimate legacy of Berlusconi. It is also one which won him vocal fans across the continent, including a young Boris Johnson when he was editor at The Spectator and yet to become a Conservative Member of Parliament. In 2003, Johnson visited Berlusconi in Italy to conduct an interview for a profile piece in the Spectator. In assessing whether the Italian Prime Minister was politically a “good thing”, Johnson’s answer was an “unambiguous yes”. His praise went on to include Berlusconi’s humorous character, stating that it is hard not to be charmed by a man who makes jokes about the EU, whilst his style contains something “heroic” and “hilariously imperial” within it.
Two years after writing the Berlusconi article, Johnson announced his candidacy as a Conservative for the Uxbridge parliamentary seat in west London. He had lied to The Spectator, with whom he took on the role of Editor on the understanding he would not enter politics. Such opportunism is arguably a key moment in what some critics call the Berlusconifying of the UK.
Johnson, as well as Trump, further demonstrates the absorption of Berlusconismo by making national political parties into personal parties. Where Berlusconi relied on his personality and the use of mass media to win votes, such politicians would later follow suit. Berlusconi’s use of stunts to create spectacles and push the personalisation of politics further created inspiration, from Johnson’s bulldozer to Trump’s infamous and numerous Twitter performances.
Whilst such politicians may longer be in positions of power, it is arguably the long-term effects they create that are their true impacts, as opposed to ensuring effective political rule. With both the UK and the US facing general elections in 2024, the impact of Johnson in the UK has unquestionably stained the reputation of the ruling Conservative Party, whilst Trump, in true Berlusconi style, is pushing for a second term amidst considerable legal troubles.
- Do any other global political leaders resemble Silvio Berlusconi’s populism? If so, how?
- To what extent did Berlusconi help create a new Italian culture?
- What does Berlusconi’s legacy tell us about the importance of the relationship between politics and mass media?
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