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Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi, who defied numerous scandals to be Italian PM three times, has died age 86

The former three-time premier had been undergoing treatment for chronic leukaemia.

FORMER ITALY PRIME minister Silvio Berlusconi has died aged 86. 

Berlusconi had been undergoing treatment for chronic leukaemia and was admitted last week for planned medical checks for the illness.

Italian daily Corriere della Sera is reporting that the media mogul died at a Milan hospital. 

He defied numerous scandals to be Italian prime minister three times, and held a seat in the Italian Senate up to his death.

Berlusconi spent 45 days being treated for a lung infection and chronic leukaemia at the hospital before being discharged three weeks ago.

Mourners laid flowers and notes outside Villa San Martino, Berlusconi’s home near Milan, with one reading simply “we will miss you”.

Berlusconi will have a state funeral in Milan’s gothic Duomo Cathedral on Wednesday.

His Forza Italia Party is part of premier Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition but has no cabinet posts.

As Berlusconi’s body was moved from the hospital to Villa San Martino, tributes were paid by international leaders.

“Berlusconi was above all a fighter,” Meloni said in a video message posted on Twitter.

“He was a man who was not afraid to defend his convictions, and it was precisely that courage and determination which made him one of the most influential men in Italy’s history,” she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom Berlusconi controversially defended following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine — said his death was an “irreparable loss” and he hailed him as a “true friend.”

He praised Berlusconi’s “incredible vitality, optimism and sense of humour”, and said that in Russia, he will be remembered as a “principled” supporter of strengthening ties with Italy.

“A true patriot, Silvio Berlusconi always put the interests of the Fatherland above all else,” Putin added.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban tweeted: “Gone is the great fighter”, while Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “Silvio was a great friend of Israel and stood by us at all times”.

In a statement, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Silvio Berlusconi made a huge impact on Italian politics over several decades and our thoughts are with the Italian people and his family.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was “saddened” to hear of Berlusconi’s death.

“He led Italy in a time of political transition and since then continued to shape his beloved country,” she said in a tweet.

“I extend my condolences to his family and the Italian people.”

AC Milan, the football club which won a host of domestic and European titles under Berlusconi’s ownership, called him “unforgettable” in a tribute.

“Thank you, Mr President. Always with us,” the club said in a statement, adding it was “grieving the passing of the unforgettable Silvio Berlusconi”.

Berlusconi, who dominated Italian public life for decades as a billionaire media mogul and football club owner aside from politics, was a larger-than-life character but was also plagued by scandal. 

He once compared himself to Jesus and was Italy’s longest serving premier.

Berlusconi also wielded huge influence through his television and newspaper interests — he effectively invented commercial TV in Italy — his ownership of AC Milan football club, and his sheer wealth, as Italy’s richest person for a decade.

Long before Donald Trump parlayed his business success into a White House bid, Berlusconi charmed millions of Italians by presenting himself as a self-made man who enjoyed life and spoke his mind, even to the extent of insulting fellow leaders.

To his critics, however, the right-winger was a tax-evading playboy who used his vast media empire to further his political career, and then exploited his power to protect his business interests.

He spent much of his life embroiled in legal action, and the cases around his notorious “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, attended by young girls including underage escorts, were only wrapped up in February 2023.

Despite remaining president of his Forza Italia party, a junior partner in Meloni’s coalition, he had largely retired from public view in recent months.

He suffered increasing health problems — although he maintained his pride in his appearance, always smartly dressed, his slicked-back hair never showing the slightest trace of grey.

Berlusconi was hospitalised for 11 days in September 2020 after contracting coronavirus, describing it as “perhaps the most difficult ordeal of my life”.

In April 2023, doctors revealed he was in intensive care suffering from leukaemia and a lung infection. 

‘Contract with Italians’

Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s, after building up a media and real estate business, where he was viewed as a breath of fresh air after a period of corruption and scandal.

Pitching himself as a modern Italian success story, and backed by his TV stations and newspapers, he secured his first election victory in 1994 with his new movement, Forza Italia (Go Italy!), named after a football chant.

He lasted as prime minister for only nine months, but bounced back with another election win in 2001 after a populist campaign promising jobs and economic growth, signing a “Contract with Italians” live on television.

He served until 2006, and returned again as prime minister between 2008 and 2011, making him the longest-serving premier in Italy’s post-war history.

He was forced to quit as debt-laden Italy — the eurozone’s third largest economy — came under intense pressure during the financial crisis.

The tenure of the man dubbed “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight) divided Italians, as much as over his policies — including his controversial decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq — as his entire approach to life.

Throughout his time in office, prosecutors snapped at his heels, even as his supporters in parliament passed laws to shield him and his allies.

Despite multiple court cases — he claimed in 2021 he had gone through 86 trials — he never spent any time behind bars and successfully appealed convictions for fraud and corruption early in his political career.

In 2013, Berlusconi received a definitive conviction for tax fraud, which saw him carry out community service in a care home for sufferers of Alzheimer’s.

He was also long suspected of links to the mafia, but strongly denied it. 

‘Bunga Bunga’ disgrace

On the world stage, Berlusconi was known for his friendships with the likes of Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi and Russian President Vladimir Putin — the latter of whom he controversially defended following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

He had no time for traditional diplomacy, once likening a German European MP to a Nazi and describing US President Barack Obama as “suntanned”.

His image was further tarnished when lurid details emerged of his sex parties at his villa near Milan with its private disco, during a hugely embarrassing trial involving a 17-year-old nightclub dancer.

Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 for paying for sex with Karima El-Mahroug, known as “Ruby the Heart Stealer” — but this was later overturned after the judge said there was reasonable doubt that he knew she was underage.

He then stood accused of bribing witnesses to lie about his parties, which he always insisted were elegant dinners. He was acquitted in three related trials.

A relationship with another teenager led to the end of his second marriage with former actress Veronica Lario, who left him in 2009 over his “cavorting with minors”.

In March 2022, he held a bizarre fake wedding with his girlfriend Marta Fascina, then 32. 

Football glory

Berlusconi was born in 1936 in Milan to a bank employee father and a housewife mother. He went on to father five children, all involved in the running of his business empire.

As a young man, he was quick to realise his talents as an entertainer.

A huge fan of Nat King Cole, he played double bass in a band and made club audiences laugh with jokes during breaks from his law studies at the University of Milan.

As a student, he worked briefly as a cruise ship singer before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector in his 20s, which delivered his first fortune.

These funds were used to build a vast conglomerate spanning shops, cinemas, publishers, newspapers and cable television, where he broke new ground with commercial programmes filled with scantily clad women.

Crucially for his public persona, his empire also included football, one of Italy’s great passions.

As well as providing money for AC Milan, he regularly delivered dressing room and training ground pep talks during a period in which the club became one of the world’s most celebrated and trophied success stories.

Five of AC Milan’s seven European Cup/Champions League triumphs were achieved under Berlusconi’s 31-year ownership.

He sold the club in 2017 after years of lacklustre performances, and in 2018 bought Monza, then in Italy’s third tier.

Additional reporting by Eoghan Dalton

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