Berlusconi: the Italian “knight” plagued by scandals

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Roma (AFP) – Silvio Berlusconi’s candidacy for the Italian presidency has always been a long shot, a bold final throw of the dice by the scandal-ridden former prime minister who dominated public life for decades.

The billionaire media mogul, who pulled out of the race on Saturday, continues to sow discord in Italy and ridicule abroad, and is still embroiled in legal action over his infamous ‘Bunga Bunga’ sex parties.

Berlusconi, 85, has also suffered from a series of health problems, including his hospitalization with coronavirus in September 2020. His lawyers have cited the illness as a reason for delaying legal proceedings.

For many, he was an utterly inappropriate candidate for a unifying head of state, with a politician calling his candidacy a “tragic joke”, and few analysts believed he had the numbers.

The man nicknamed ‘Il Cavaliere’ (The Knight) insisted he had enough support but was stepping down in the interest of ‘national responsibility’, adding: ‘I will continue to serve my country other manners”.

Talent for self-promotion

Berlusconi’s mix of politics, business and television, his outspoken and often offensive opinions and talent for self-promotion have drawn comparisons to former US President Donald Trump.

Born in Milan in 1936, he started in the construction business at the age of 20, creating a huge media and real estate business, which included football club AC Milan.

In the early 1990s, bad investments saw his debts soar and he entered politics, bursting onto the scene with a new party, Forza Italy (“Go Italy”), named after a song of football.

After his first election victory in 1994, he was prime minister for only nine months, but won again in 2001 after a US-style campaign in which he promised jobs and economic growth, signing a “contract with the Italians” live on television.

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

Key to his charm was his glamorous lifestyle, his bravado, and his promises of a deregulated, low-tax economy in which Italians could emulate his financial success.

For a decade he was the richest person in Italy.

To his critics, he was a fraudulent playboy who used his vast media empire to advance his political career, then exploited his power to protect his business interests.

Internationally, he flirted with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and was close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With a typical lack of humility, Berlusconi compared himself to Napoleon and Jesus Christ.

Legal woes

Prosecutors have cracked on his heels throughout his tenure, even as his supporters in parliament passed laws to protect him and his allies.

Despite several court cases – he claimed last year to have faced 86 trials – he never spent time behind bars and successfully appealed fraud and corruption convictions early in his political career.

In 2013, Berlusconi faced his first final conviction for tax evasion, which saw him perform community service at a nursing home for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

But he continues to deal with the fallout from his parties at his villa near Milan, which had a private nightclub.

Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 for paying to have sex with Karima El-Mahroug, then 17, but that was later overturned after the judge said there was doubt reasonable that he knew she was a minor.

In October last year, a court in Tuscany acquitted him of bribing a witness to lie about the parties, although related proceedings are continuing elsewhere.

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