Who Is Silvio Berlusconi?
Born in Milan, Italy, on September 29, 1936, Silvio Berlusconi rose from a middle class background to become one of the wealthiest men in the country. In 1993, Berlusconi founded his own right-wing political party; he went on to become a three-time prime minister. Despite being dogged by scandals and being convicted of several crimes, Berlusconi remains a powerful figure in Italy.
Silvio Berlusconi was born in Milan, Italy, on September 29, 1936. He sold vacuum cleaners and sang on cruise ships before making a fortune in real estate.
Success via Television
Berlusconi launched a cable channel, Telemilano, in 1974. Although Italian television was heavily regulated, Berlusconi then started a commercial network. He introduced Italy to many foreign TV shows and to veline, showgirls who would strip or dance during game shows and news programs.
Berlusconi went on to control multiple private television networks in Italy. His business empire grew to include a publishing house and numerous magazines, and he also served as president of the AC Milan football (soccer) club for more than 30 years, until its sale in 2017.
In 1993, Berlusconi founded a political party, Forza Italia (Go Italy). He became prime minister in 1994, and remained a popular political figure even after the coalition that brought him to power fell apart, especially among people who believed his business acumen would help Italy's economy. With promises of tax cuts and job growth, he took over as prime minister again in 2001, staying in power until 2006.
With his renamed political party, Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom), Berlusconi became prime minister for a third time in 2008. He resigned in 2011, after witnessing Italy's debt burdens surge during the eurozone crisis, before being banned from office in 2013.
Berlusconi promoted many of the veline from his television programs to government positions. In 2007, Berlusconi told Mara Carfagna, a velina he had brought into politics, "If I weren't already married, I would marry you right now." Hearing this public declaration, Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, published a letter demanding an apology. After Berlusconi attended an aspiring velina's 18th birthday party in 2009, Lario opted to end the marriage.
Another Berlusconi scandal was the revelation about his "bunga bunga" sex parties. At these parties, women—often wearing costumes—danced and disrobed for Berlusconi and his guests. Berlusconi has stated that the gatherings were nothing more than dinner parties.
Criminal Charges and Convictions
Accusations of criminal misbehavior followed Berlusconi into office, leading to charges of embezzlement, tax fraud and bribery. Being in power helped him avoid some charges—he passed one law that granted the prime minister immunity while in office (the law was later struck down). Berlusconi was also able to fight other accusations until the statute of limitations ran out.
However, Berlusconi has been convicted multiple times. In October 2012, Berlusconi was sentenced to four years for tax fraud. And in June 2013, Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years for paying an underage woman, Karima "Ruby" el Mahroug, for sex. El Mahroug was 17 when she attended several of Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties in 2010. Berlusconi was also convicted of abusing the power of his office, for attempting to get el Mahroug out of jail by telling police that she was related to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
Berlusconi never admitted to any wrongdoing and ultimately never had to spend a day in jail, instead serving his sentences by performing community service.
Berlusconi's Impact on Italy
With his broadcasting success and wealth—in 2013, Forbes magazine estimated his family's fortune at $6.2 billion—Berlusconi transformed the worlds of media and politics in Italy.
He also proved an enduring figure in the public realm. In early 2018, at age 81, Berlusconi was well received at a rally before a parliamentary election, in which a coalition led by his revamped Forza Italia party was expected to win the most votes.
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