Before Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Boris Johnson, says Rachel Sanderson in Bloomberg, “there was Silvio Berlusconi”. The billionaire media tycoon and former cruise ship crooner, who died yesterday aged 86, was a “magnet for Italy’s forgotten everyman”, serving longer than any postwar Italian leader. He only entered politics after his pals in government were “razed” in a bribery scandal; despite his association with socialists, he effectively switched sides because private polling showed he would stand a better chance campaigning from the right. “It doesn’t matter what party I am,” he told an astonished associate, “so long as I win.”
Ownership of Italy’s first private TV network allowed him to “bombard” Italians with his views: mocking women, railing against immigrants and ridiculing the central bank and judiciary. Accusations of dodging taxes and paying underage women for sex – not to mention his infamous “Bunga Bunga” parties – boosted his popularity among those who distrusted fusty elites. In the end, it wasn’t the “two dozen criminal court cases”, involving everything from vote buying to wiretapping, that brought Berlusconi down. It was Italy’s financial collapse in 2011. The strongman’s “overwhelming desire to be loved” prevented him from making the tough structural reforms the country so desperately needed. He managed to stay “politically relevant”: holidaying (while wearing matching bearskin hats) with his friend Vladimir Putin, whom he later defended over Ukraine. And his most lasting legacy has been the “gathering momentum” of the brand of populism he pioneered. Next year’s European elections “may yet reveal the full reach of Berlusconismo”.
💰🚂 Berlusconi was a canny businessman from the off, says The Economist. For his first big construction project, he desperately needed a pension fund to invest. Deploying his “irresistible charm”, the 27-year-old seduced the secretary of the fund’s vice president, persuaded her to tell him when her boss was next getting the train to Milan, and “booked the seat opposite”. By the time they arrived in the city, both men were “at the bar, half-drunk, with the pension-fund manager telling him how extraordinary were the private parts of the women of Caucasia”. The venture was saved, and Berlusconi never looked back.