The Berlusconi legacy

International media have always depicted Silvio Berlusconi in stereotypical ways, shaped by his outlandish behaviour and sex scandals. Massimo D’Angelo explains why the Berlusconi legacy goes beyond these stereotypes, and how it can still act as a beacon for many right-wing populist leaders around the world

No laughing matter

'Bunga Bunga sex parties dies', read the headline in the Daily Mail. The Mirror wrote, 'Notorious Bunga Bunga parties ex-Italian PM dies at 86'. Only a few weeks earlier, a London theatre staged Berlusconi: The Musical, chronicling the many phases of Berlusconi’s career, from cruise ship crooner to successful entrepreneur and politician. Much of the comedy was wrung from the sex scandals of which Berlusconi was eventually acquitted.

The Berlusconian model remains deeply fashionable in the eyes of autocratic populists

However, as exciting as the latter part of his life may be to international readers, Berlusconi's other personal and political characteristics are more sinister. These are less folkloric, and have now crossed national borders. Today, the Berlusconian model remains deeply fashionable in the eyes of autocratic populists. Berlusconi's legacy thus remains a risk to democracy.

Rise to power

Berlusconi founded a new political party, Forza Italia, in 1993, with the aim of preventing the Italian Communist Party coming to power. In reality, the Italian Communist Party had loosened ties with the Soviet Union over the preceding decades. In 1991, it changed its name, effectively embracing social democracy. But regardless, in 1994 Berlusconi won his first elections to become the Prime Minister of Italy.

Contesting the rules of the game

As PM, Berlusconi’s concentration of wealth and power attracted attention. He owned three national television channels, newspapers, publishing companies, banks, and a football team. His conflicts of interest were strikingly apparent. When investigations began into Berlusconi's immense wealth, he engaged in a personal and active battle against the judiciary.

Berlusconi was not afraid to stage protests with his party outside court tribunals, and he branded the Italian Constitutional Court a 'leftist political institution'. Does this sound familiar? Delegitimisation of (and sometimes attempts to influence) courts has become a trend over recent years, in Hungary, Poland, the US, and beyond.

Berlusconi became the front-runner among those populists who no longer stuck to the rules of the game

In front of parliament, Berlusconi staged the first rally against election results in republican history. The rally was organised in opposition to the election of Romano Prodi, the only centre-left leader who managed to defeat Berlusconi – twice.

Berlusconi's communication style always pitted the electorate against the elites. Any intervening body, even a constitutional one, he regarded as an obstacle to the expression of the will of the people. When he – narrowly – lost the election in 2006, he refused to admit defeat. Just like Trump, Berlusconi repeated the mantra of rigged elections. He then offered rewards to any senator willing to leave the governing majority.

Berlusconi, then, became the frontrunner among populists who no longer stuck to the rules of the game. As Yasha Mounk wrote in The People vs. Democracy, to gain political advantage, 'politicians become willing to undermine free and fair elections, to flout the basic norms of the political system, and to vilify their adversaries'.

Friends in (dubious) high places

Berlusconi’s political style was even more evident in international relations. His diplomacy was shaped mainly by his personal links with foreign heads of state and governments.

Mourning Berlusconi’s death, Vladimir Putin described him as 'a true friend'. When both were in power, this notorious twosome paid each other official and private visits, and exchanged lavish gifts. When Russia invaded Ukraine, in February 2022, their continuing friendship triggered concerns over Italy’s commitment to the NATO alliance. Such doubts were partly allayed by new PM Meloni’s expression of firm fidelity to NATO following her electoral success in September.

Berlusconi's diplomacy was defined by his personal links with foreign heads of state and governments, many of which provoked unease on the international stage

Similar concerns were raised in 2011 when the UN approved its controversial actions against Gaddafi in Libya. In view of Gaddafi’s personal friendship with Berlusconi, the UN considered Italy the weak flank. Only a few months before the invasion, Berlusconi had allowed Gaddafi to pitch his tents in the state-owned gardens of Villa Doria Pamphili, surrounded by female bodyguards and horses.

Running a country's foreign policy is a tricky business. A highly personalised approach may bring short-term advantages. But it can fall apart if one of the actors is removed. It's notable that Italy now plays very little role in Libya.

Current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was one of Berlusconi's closest friends. On the occasion of Berlusconi's death, Erdoğan sent a letter to Italian newspapers to express his condolences. The pair's friendship had sometimes caused embarrassment to the Italian government, particularly when the Turkish government started tightening its grip on civil liberties.

Berlusconi's legacy

'I’m the Jesus Christ of politics,' Berlusconi once boasted. His resurrection is far from guaranteed. And judging by the disciples present at his funeral, including Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Matteo Salvini, and Giorgia Meloni, the future appears less than celestial.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Massimo D'Angelo
Massimo D'Angelo
PhD Candidate, Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London

Massimo's interests are Turkey and the international dimension of authoritarianism.

His research is on the consequences of the Turkish regime's European Union accession negotiations.

He tweets @maxioffida

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