In a way I should credit Silvio Berlusconi, who has died at the age of 86, with doing one good thing, at least for me personally: he kindled in me an enduring addiction to all things Italian. He did so, however, for bad reasons: why, I wanted to know once this passion began in 2001 along with his greatest election victory, did so many of the lovely citizens of il Bel Paese choose to support this narcissistic, self-serving, shameless billionaire dinosaur, who had plainly collaborated with the Sicilian mafia and who had broken all sorts of laws over accounting fraud, bribery of judges and tax evasion? Ultimately, the answer was as simple as the answer to the other common question, that of why so many women were willing to be part of his entourage: because he was rich, flaunted his generosity, used his big smile very effectively, and owned most of Italy’s commercial TV channels. Power, as Henry Kissinger famously said, is a great aphrodisiac, and to modernise the phrase one might add that being rich and owning TV channels acts as a kind of political Viagra to keep things going for rather longer than would otherwise be the case.

In Italian politics, one might also add that Berlusconi’s influence continued for far too long, even as the voters’ support for his personal fan club/political party, Forza Italia, dwindled. Once he had been ejected from Palazzo Chigi (i.e. the prime ministership) in 2011, ending his third and final spell in that role, a normal man would have stepped back from the frontline of politics and allowed a successor to emerge at the head of his party and hence of the right-wing coalition that by then was dominating the country’s politics. Not Berlusconi. Addicted to the limelight and even to perpetual hopes of making a comeback, he refused to step aside. The result was that the leadership of the right moved to other, more extremist, politicians and their parties, first to Matteo Salvini and his Lega (formerly the separatist Lega Nord/Northern League, which dropped the separatism once it sniffed national power) and now to the current prime minister, Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia, a party proud of its roots in Mussolini’s fascism. A secondary result was that in January 2022 when many thought Mario Draghi might be chosen by the Italian Parliament as the country’s President, Berlusconi presented himself as a candidate. Perhaps Draghi would never have made it in any case, but Berlusconi’s ultimately doomed candidature certainly prevented any consensus emerging on the right to support the former European Central Bank governor and incumbent prime minister.

Yet this is to jump to the end of the story and thus to omit its beginning and middle. The key things to know about Berlusconi’s story are that he made his first fortune in property development in Milan, using money the origins of which have never been revealed; and he made his second fortune by combining the sale of advertising with ownership of commercial television and newspapers. He found his way into the circles of power in the 1970s and 1980s through a secret society, a former Masonic lodge called P2 (Propaganda Due) which was later associated with a series of conspiracies and coup plots, and by helping to finance the Socialist Party led by Bettino Craxi. With this support, Craxi managed to become prime minister from 1983-87, during which time Berlusconi was granted Italy’s first national commercial TV licences. Meanwhile, alongside his TV franchises Berlusconi bought the A.C. Milan football club in 1986 and used the combination of television and soccer to propel himself into public prominence.

This is also why, when he announced his entry into politics in January 1994 it was described as his “discesa in campo”, his descent onto the field. This decision came at the time of Italy’s great political corruption scandal, known as Tangentopoli (“bribesville”) or Mani Pulite (clean hands), which had destroyed the long-dominant centre-right party, the Christian Democrats, and which had sent his ally Craxi into a disgraced exile in Tunisia. Berlusconi saw his opening but also his vulnerability: directly, he was vulnerable to investigations for corruption and other crimes; indirectly, the tight world of favours and cronyism in which he had flourished was at risk of abolition. So he created a party, Forza Italia (a stadium chant: “Go Italy”) and succeeded also in forming a coalition with the then Lega Nord and the Alleanza Nazionale, heir to the post-fascist Muovimento Sociale Italiano. Superficially this was a coalition of incompatibles, since Lega Nord supposedly considered the southern Italian supporters of Alleanza Nazionale as thieves and spongers, but actually was a coalition of cronyist convenience.

Berlusconi’s first government was not strong and lasted barely eight months. But his electoral success, with his media domination, gave him a sustained influence over Italian politics. The 1990s saw a series of centrist and left-wing coalitions which did implement some privatisations and other liberal reforms but crucially shrank back from one important measure: passing a conflict of interest law to limit the extent of media concentration and its use in politics. The left no doubt had its own interests and shady power structures to defend, but this omission was fateful for it gave Berlusconi the chance not just to remain politically powerful but also to win an overwhelming victory in the 2001 general election and then to deploy that power to pass a series of laws serving his own business interests and curtailing the chances that court cases might impinge upon his activities.

My colleagues and I at The Economist had described him as “unfit” to lead Italy on our cover in April 2001, just before his election victory. Understandably, he wasn’t pleased.

He accused us of being “The E-Communist” and his newspaper, Il Giornale, gave me a long-lasting joke-line by printing my photo on its front page and pointing out that the E-Communist’s editor looked a lot like Lenin. We continued the campaign against him, over his financial and other crimes and his conflicts of interest, and earned two libel suits against us, both of which we eventually won.

By the time of his third prime ministership in 2008-11 the evidence was clear of what a bad effect his grip on power in 2001-06 had already had on his country. He had passed no significant legislative reforms beyond those that suited his own interests, had undermined the judicial system by shortening statutes of limitation to impractically tight schedules, and had neglected the economy altogether. Yet still he was able to win back power, defeating a divided left. This confirmed that he was perfectly “fit” for another role: to act as an early warning to all the democracies of Europe and North America of what could happen when a narcissistic, media-savvy billionaire achieved such a dominant political position.

In Britain, Boris Johnson, who had written admiringly about Berlusconi when he was editor of the Spectator political weekly, was a less competent but also less wealthy emulator during his ill-fated three years as prime minister in 2019-22. But as everyone now knows, the most complete graduate from Berlusconi University has been Donald Trump, right down to the instinctive denunciation of all judicial confrontations as being politically motivated “witch hunts”.

Sounding this warning did not make us popular with many in Italy, except, naturally, with opposition parties. Some business moguls, led by Gianni Agnelli, took offence: Agnelli accused us of treating Italy “like a banana republic”. At an Aspen Italia conference soon after that “unfit” cover, I was confronted by Gianni de Michelis, the former Socialist Party foreign minister, who yelled in my face that we were behaving like colonialists. Giulio Tremonti, shortly to become Berlusconi’s first economy minister, had a subtler approach: he just crossed himself each time he saw me.

Internationally, however, the reaction both to Berlusconi in government and to our little campaign was less emotional and more thoughtful. The scepticism about him in other European capitals and in Washington grew as time went on, but right from the start many governments were somewhat suspicious.

The tragedy of Berlusconi from the point of view of Italy’s international reputation was linked also to his own image-making techniques. With all his talk of “bunga bunga” parties and his well-choreographed parade of glamorous and eventually younger girls, his chosen persona as a kind of 1950s macho playboy won him votes but also reinforced unfortunate stereotypes about Italy, whether in the media or in high political circles, as an unserious, self-indulgent, misogynistic and even corrupt place. His TV stations influenced Italian culture directly through their depiction of women as sex objects, as decorative showgirls. But Berlusconi’s impact on Italy’s international reputation was a very personal one.

What particularly drew the international eye was Berlusconi’s preference for spending time with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gadhafi rather than his EU counterparts. I don’t think anyone seriously believed he had any ideological affinity with either Putin or Gadhafi. The lesson was, however, that dominant, wealthy leaders such as Berlusconi like the company of dictators who can exploit national resources and take decisions unhindered by democratic politics. President Trump was the same with Putin, and even with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. As a result, other European governments distrusted Berlusconi, sensing that he might also be pursuing his own business interests.

Now, looking back at that long period of the domination of politics and of Italy’s international image by Berlusconi, I think three main conclusions can be drawn:

The first is that Italy’s political institutions proved to be admirably resilient in the face of his conduct, with the important exception of the judiciary. Reform of the justice system always appears in any set of recommendations for Italy’s political economy, and that was also true before Berlusconi entered the political field. But he set it back, by deliberately undermining judicial processes to protect his own interests, by playing up the politicisation of the judiciary and thereby actually encouraging it, and most of all by wasting a decade during which justice reform should have been happening.

The second is that there is one virtue in having an extreme narcissist leading your government. It is that such people are really only interested in themselves and in holding on to power, so their agenda for actual government policy is quite limited. This was true of Berlusconi, whose governments achieved remarkably little beyond wasting time when real reforms could have been implemented. And it was true of Johnson as well as of Trump. Nonetheless, as Trump showed, this virtue should not be relied upon.

The third conclusion is that the most damaging consequences of Berlusconian politics came not from his ideas or policies but from the concentration of power that he achieved. It was this that led to a big revival during the 2000s in corruption, in crony capitalism and in the international perception of corruption. The succession of short-lived, much weaker governments since 2011 introduced some helpful anti-corruption laws but also by their very weakness reduced the incentives and opportunities for abuse. It is the concentration of power that should be avoided above all: that, though he would never accept it, is Berlusconi’s ultimate political lesson to the West.

I met him only once, in 2011 when the director Annalisa Piras and I were filming our documentary, Girlfriend in a Coma. I took him by surprise at an event at the Quirinale, the President’s official residence, but he immediately deployed his charm and the famous smile, denying that he had ever thought I was a “communist”. I told him about the film, and he immediately offered to give us an interview. But when we tried to take up his offer, we were told we had misunderstood, even though the offer had been captured on film. Truth never counted for very much for Silvio Berlusconi.

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