Twilight of a Populist

The End of Silvio Berlusconi

It’s often written that Silvio Berlusconi’s political fortunes lasted almost thirty years, from 1994 to his death in 2023. But this is not true.

Hiding behind his image. Il Cavaliere's funeral, Milano.

While he remained relevant to his last day, Berlusconi’s role as unelected leader of the Italian right ended on 16 November 2011, when he resigned as prime minister under overwhelming pressures he’d triggered during the decade leading up to that day.

His decision to resign prolonged his political longevity, and in this, Berlusconi was helped, as usual, by sheer luck and mistakes made by his enemies.

However, his reign as “National Silvio”, as his admirers called him, was over.

Berlusconi’s political heydays were divided into three phases, coinciding with his three stints as premier.

In the early 1990s, he acted as the moderniser and revolutioniser of Italian politics.

During his longest period in power, from 2001 to 2005, Berlusconi adopted the image of the Western conservative, the loyal American ally, and the shrewd businessman-turned-politician who acted (or pretended to) as a go-between for Washington and the emerging realities of the post-Cold War world.

Silvio Berlusconi’s third phase, and the most controversial, saw him turning Eurosceptic, much more inclined to populism, overshadowed by personal scandals and economic turmoil.

This trajectory was mirrored by the evolution of the opposition to Berlusconi.

In the mid-1990s, most of this was by a left still reeling from the fall of the Soviet Union and still coping with the “end of history” and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism.

From 2001 to 2006, the forces opposing Berlusconi had an entirely different outlook and were made of a mix of Blairite and “responsible” liberals.

Allegiance to NATO was not up for discussion anymore. The triumphant Western mood of the 1990s was over, and the questions raised by 9/11 and the War on Terror could not be answered by Berlusconi with simple references to Communism and its evils.

The PR disaster of the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa, where the violent response to three days of protests left one student dead and hundreds brutally beaten, had galvanised a new youth radicalism Berlusconi found difficult to confront.

His main assets in that era were an excellent personal relationship with the US President, George W. Bush and his dynamism in foreign policy.

Internally, however, it was more of the same. As mentioned in the first part of this article, Berlusconi promised big changes and delivered very little, except for the usual neoliberal “reforms” aimed at reducing welfare and workers’ rights or, more often than not, lowering taxes for that family-based entrepreneurial class that made up the bulwark of Berlusconi’s political base at least until 2008.

It was a formula that was repeated again and again and worked no matter what the year.

A good example was Berlusconi’s promise in 1994 to create “one million new workplaces”. It was utterly ridiculous, but many of his electorate (often made up of middle-aged couples that in the 1990s had unemployable children in their early 20s) believed it.

Nobody cared when the million new workplaces failed to materialise, as there was some new mirage already on the horizon. In this sense, Berlusconi was better at selling these nonsensical, unattainable promises than anyone else.

Most importantly, unlike Trump and Bolsonaro, Berlusconi never made promises that he could be criticised for failing to deliver. The “communists”, or some undefined cabal, could always be blamed for his failures.

Also, with one exception, Berlusconi tried to avoid being associated with violent repression. The exception, however, was significant.

In 2001, he hosted the annual G8 meeting in Genoa, a city that he never loved (like Torino) and is difficult to control during a high-security event.

The location had been decided by the previous, left-leaning D’Alema government, and Berlusconi inherited a security plan designed well before the November 1999 Seattle riots, which he did nothing to change.

Even worse, he gave Italy’s interior ministry free rein to control the area of the city where the G8 meeting took place. The result: one dead demonstrator and a dozen badly beaten and mistreated.

For Berlusconi, it was a personal disaster that revealed him to be indecisive and dependent upon his unprofessional subordinates. The 2001 G8 violence also opened a significant rift between Il Cavaliere and younger Italians, sparking the end of his 1990s honeymoon.

But Silvio Berlusconi endured, supported at the ballot box by an ageing middle class that seemed to be stuck forever in nostalgia for the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s and by an indecisive and unappealing opposition whose role models were Tony Blair and Bill Clinton (which he both liked).

It seemed like nothing could damage his self-confidence and his political standing.

However, nothing is eternal, not even Berlusconi. By his fourth term, in 2008, time had caught up with him. His legendary luck was nowhere to be found when the financial crisis hit.

Berlusconi managed to stem some of Italy’s losses. But the global outlook had changed.

His greatest international sponsor, George W. Bush, had been replaced by Barack Obama, who had little time for Berlusconi’s histrionics and anti-communism.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel made no secret of her dislike for Berlusconi, and the same was true for French President Nicola Sarkozy. The dislike was mutual but not just a matter of different psychology.

Germany and France, supported by the United Kingdom and, to a certain extent, the White House, aimed at making the EU a Paris-Berlin protectorate.

This meant, in particular, shutting down any attempt by profligate Mediterranean EU states to continue their attempt to carve out strategic niches in North Africa, an area that France considered its backyard.

Italy’s longstanding alliances with Libya and Tunisia were particularly problematic. Berlusconi had always considered Rome’s special relationship and Muammar Ghadaffi something to defend at all costs.

The reasons were, of course, Libya’s oilfields, where Italy’s technical presence was overwhelmingly important, as well as Ghadaffi’s role in controlling the southern immigration route to Italy.

So when the EU and the US moved to remove Ghaddafi (after the pro-Italian Tunisian government had already been removed at the start of the Arab Spring), Berlusconi tried to fight back.

But without American support, he could do little besides use his media empire to insult Italy’s international rivals. An attempt to get help from Vladimir Putin (with whom Berlusconi had a very publicised personal relationship) failed miserably.

The Italian opposition to Berlusconi embraced NATO’s war against Ghaddafi as an opportunity to humiliate their old nemesis.

It was not the only problem Berlusconi had. Germany used its prominent role in European Central Bank to manipulate the “differential spread” (the difference between Italian and German bond rates), triggering recurring waves of panic in the Italian markets.

This was, in part, a global strategy to corral the “overspending south” into adopting the strict austerity measures that had guided economic policy in the EU’s northern member states since the 1970s.

But there were also elements indicating that Berlusconi was the target of this campaign. Again, his response was fiscally prudent (aiming again at reducing losses) but politically incoherent and ineffective.

And then, Rubygate happened.

In 2010 a very young (17 at the time) Moroccan girl, Karima El Mahroug, nicknamed “Ruby RubacuorI”, was arrested for shoplifting in Milan.

A few hours later, Berlusconi called the prosecutor that oversaw her case, “convincing” him that Ruby was the nephew of Egyptian president Mubarak and that she had to be released to avoid an international crisis.

Or at least, that’s the version everyone remembers, but in typical Italian fashion, it is not clear what Berlusconi said or didn’t say that night. Karima was released, just to be arrested again a few days later.

This time she told prosecutors she knew Berlusconi well because she was part of a ring of young girls (the Olgettine) that Berlusconi paid to attend sex parties at his XVIII century mansion in Arcore.

This was neither the first nor the last major legal problem experienced by Berlusconi, who spent almost every year of his political career battling (almost always successfully) severe allegations of all sorts, mostly related to corruption or his alleged dealing with organised crime.

And Italy is not a Puritan country. Berlusconi’s notorious penchant for girls and sex had always been part of his public image. But this time, it was different.

Prosecutors fed the press a steady flow of intercepted call transcripts, where the Olgettine and some of Berlusconi’s associates (in particular Nicole Minetti, a previously unknown lawmaker Berlusconi helped elect to Lombardy’s parliament) discussed their mercenary relationship with the premier.

But the damage for Berlusconi was not so much that he had (or offered his guests) paid sex. Instead, it was the impression given to the public that he was a degraded and gullible “dirty old man” surrounded by a ring of leeches and scammers.

Graphic details of these “sex parties” (that Berlusconi’s lawyers insisted on calling “elegant dinners”, a name that stuck) continued to be released to the press, no matter how contradictory or improbable they were, and the public asked for more.

Further wiretapped conversations among Berlusconi’s entourage compounded the damage, implying he had become senile and difficult to control.

Ultimately, the affair lasted for a decade without any real legal consequence for Berlusconi, confirming the suspicion that Rubygate had outlived its usefulness.

But Silvio Berlusconi’s image never fully recovered from the scandal.

In the court of Italian opinion, he had turned from an all-important political and financial powerhouse, with many idiosyncrasies, into a corrupt and degraded sex addict who was easy to manipulate.

The combination of international pressure, economic turmoil and legal trouble proved too much for Berlusconi, and on 16 November 2011, he resigned from the premiership.

Silvio Berlusconi was considered over, but once again, his legendary luck, and serious mistakes made by the Italian opposition, assured him a place in politics that lasted until his death.

When his government fell, it was immediately replaced by a technocratic coalition led by Mario Monti, which proceeded to impose strict and incredibly unpopular austerity measures, in particular, a major reform of the Italian retirement age.

While applauded by Northern European leaders, Monti proved to be one of the most hated executives in Italian history. When the election arrived in 2013, he was ignored at the ballot box.

In the meantime, the Mediterranean was falling prey to the turmoil generated by Ghadaffi’s fall and the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2015.

It was easy for Berlusconi to point out that, in the end, he may have been right. But while the memories of his Bunga Bunga parties were fading, the disappointment of the Italian electorate was growing.

At this point, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) and Beppe Grillo (a comedian turned politician, another Italian invention) exploited this confusion and gave birth to Italian neo-populism.

Cinque Stelle was never a right-wing movement, and an alliance between Grillo and Berlusconi was impossible. But Grillo was siphoning leftist and centrist votes, particularly in the south, denying the Partito Democratico, Italy’s main centre-left party, the overwhelming majority PD expected to win.

Forza Italia (now renamed Popolo Delle Libertà) suffered significant losses, but they were mostly to new far-right parties like La Destra and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli D’Italia.

And it was easy for Berlusconi to find a political agreement with them. He was not the Big Boss of the Italian conservative ecology, but he could still act as a kingmaker and tip the scale.

Not least because, instead of uniting against the right, Italy’s left saw yet another earthquake with the rise of Matteo Renzi, a bona fide centrist whom Berlusconi always considered one of his political heirs.

The rest of Berlusconi’s history coincides with the ten most dramatic years Europe has seen since WWII.

The immigration crisis, Trump’s election, COVID-19, the rise of far-right populism and the Ukraine war seemed to irremediably break any hope for a transition to a globalised, market-driven democracy.

In this confused and confusing scenario, Berlusconi transitioned to his last political persona: old-school conservative neoliberalism to act to counterbalance the growing extremism of both the Lega (driven by Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populism) and the “real” far right, now dominated by Meloni’s Fratelli D’Italia.

But now, Silvio Berlusconi was more preoccupied with the financial woes of his political movement (burdened by a back-breaking financial debt) and the long shadow of his legal problems.

However, he still managed to be elected to the parliament again in 2013 and 2022, and he even made a serious attempt at becoming the republic’s next president.

His electorate was now old and nostalgic, and Berlusconi never tried to avoid being a reassuring and familiar figure with this crowd.

But he remained, until the end, a consummate showman, even if he was now more elderly comedian than a magnetic Svengali.

His last role was a few days before dying. Now 86, terminally ill and resembling more and more a Philip K. Dick caricature of himself (complete with a plastic look and unlikely jet-black hair almost painted on the top of his head), Berlusconi still insisted on sending a message of optimism, inviting voters to go to the ballot for imminent local elections, as a high turnout would favour the right.

It somehow worked, and one is left with the suspicion Berlusconi the showman, ended up outliving Berlusconi, the politician.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.