Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian prime minister, has died

Milan, Italy - Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a controversial real estate, media, and football mogul who shaped Italian politics for decades, died on Monday at the age of 86.

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has passed away at the age of 86.
Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has passed away at the age of 86.  © REUTERS

Berlusconi died in hospital in Milan, according to Italian media reports.

He was admitted to hospital on Friday for scheduled health check-ups related to his chronic leukemia, according to the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan.

Berlusconi was a towering if divisive force who shaped the Italian political landscape. He was prime minister on four occasions between 1994 and 2011. Until his death he sat on the Senate, the smaller of Italy's two chambers of parliament.

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Born in Milan on September 29, 1936, to a bank official and a secretary, Berlusconi found early business success in the 1970s, became a household name in the 1980s, and moved into politics in the 1990s, with stunning results.

Berlusconi holds the record as Italy's longest-serving prime minister, with terms in office in 1994, 2001-2006, and 2008-2011. His rise to power was meteoric, winning his first elections in 1994 at the helm of a new party named after a football slogan, Forza Italia, or Go Italy.

He resigned in disgrace in 2011, at the height of a national debt crisis that risked destabilizing the entire Eurozone, while he was on trial for tax evasion and soliciting sex from an underage prostitute, in the infamous "bunga bunga" affair.

The case ended with an acquittal due to lack of evidence. But court hearings revealing that Berlusconi used to host lap dance shows with scantily clad girls wearing masks of famous people left an impression.

Berlusconi was a polarizing figure in Italian politics

Berlusconi was once Italy's richest man and was both loved and hated by the people of Italy.
Berlusconi was once Italy's richest man and was both loved and hated by the people of Italy.  © REUTERS

Internationally, Berlusconi supported the US-led invasion of Iraq; hosted a 2002 summit that saw NATO and Russia patch up temporarily; and struck up a deep friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In Italy, he was loved and hated in equal measure, splitting the country between "Berlusconism" and "anti-Berlusconism."

Once Italy's richest man, Berlusconi promised to run the country as successfully as his businesses, offering low-tax and deregulation recipes.

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As the frontman of a conservative coalition that did not exist before 1994, he is credited with modernizing Italian politics – although not all would say for the better.

Former prime minister Mario Monti called Berlusconi the "father of all populists."

Berlusconi once called himself the "Jesus Christ of politics."

Berlusconi rocked by scandals and controversy

Berlusconi was banned from public office until 2018 after being found guilty of a large tax scam.
Berlusconi was banned from public office until 2018 after being found guilty of a large tax scam.  © REUTERS

Critics however slammed Berlusconi for passing legislation to shield himself from prosecution, riding roughshod over his conflicts of interest, and condoning tax evasion and illegal building construction.

He was implicated in dozens of trials and investigations, with accusations ranging from Mafia collusion to bribing opposition lawmakers and court witnesses. Partly thanks to immunity laws he pushed through, he was handed a final conviction only once.

In 2013, Berlusconi was found guilty of a multimillion-Euro tax scam, expelled from parliament, and banned from public office until 2018.

Before he became a lawmaker, Berlusconi built luxury suburban districts, acquired a near-monopoly over private TV stations, and bought AC Milan, turning it into Europe's most successful football club.

Berlusconi makes occasional comebacks after resignation

Berlusconi faced a series of health difficulties in recent years.
Berlusconi faced a series of health difficulties in recent years.  © REUTERS

After his 2011 resignation, Berlusconi faded, despite the occasional comeback.

Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) replaced him as the leader of Italy's conservative bloc, and Berlusconi's Forza Italia party slid into irrelevance, until its return in 2022 as a minor coalition party in the right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni.

Berlusconi was admitted to hospital at the beginning of April for pneumonia.

He had repeated health problems in his final years, undergoing heart surgery in 2016. He had a pacemaker for several years.

He was hospitalized with pneumonia and Covid-19 in 2020.

He was also hospitalized in 2022 for a urinary tract infection. He had an operation for a prostate tumor in 1997.

In his private life, Berlusconi always made headlines. The twice-divorced politician leaves behind five children and many grandchildren.

Most recently, he was with Forza Italia member of parliament Marta Fascina, who was more than 50 years younger than him.

Cover photo: REUTERS

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