Silvio Berlusconi, or il Cavaliere as he’s mockingly referred to in Italy, stepped down today. This week, he agreed to resign as prime minister after losing his majority in Italy’s Parliament. He left after both legislative houses approved an austerity package.
It’s actually quite difficult for me to imagine an Italy without Berlusconi at the helm. He dominated Italian politics for 17 years. The man has practically become myth. I am compelled to read the details of his latest antics, many of which hardly seem real.
Berlusconi is a fascinating case study in international media for two reasons. First, he is a billionaire media mogul turned politician who has gone to great lengths to ensure that the media portray him in a positive light. Second, despite his best efforts, his image in the media has run the gamut from awesome to atrocious, sometimes straddling the two simultaneously.
Berlusconi is actually a businessman by trade. He amassed tremendous wealth when he founded what is now the largest broadcasting corporation in Italy, Mediaset. With that money he funded successful political campaigns. He was first elected prime minister in 1994. He promised to sell his shares in Mediaset and never did. Italy, a democratic republic, faced a massive conflict of interest.
Berlusconi has always understood the importance of the media in influencing public opinion. In a country where many homes watch the basic seven or eight free-to-air channels, controlling three of them is a colossal advantage. He frequently clamped down on content that criticized him. Ironically, he once even tried to censor a film about how he censors the media.
While in office, Berlusconi consistently made headlines not for his policies, but for scandals and blunders. Over the years he faced countless corruption charges including mafia collusion and tax fraud. One of the most recent scandals involved an underage girl named Ruby. Italian prosecutors say Berlusconi promised her millions of dollars to keep their interactions under wraps. What resulted was media frenzy over what was called Rubygate. This time he’s gone too far, the pundits cried. But he hadn’t.
He infamously used the phrase “bunga bunga” to describe the lavish sex parties held at his villa. He has often boasted about his sexual conquests. Earlier this year, Italian women protested their portrayal in the media. Berlusconi was their main target. They demanded to be judged on their brains, not their beauty. The protests also received considerable attention in the media. But Berlusconi didn’t change.
All of the above simply helped to cultivate the Berlusconi brand – confident, compelling, and carefree. He oozed a sleazy self-assurance that kept him one step ahead of his critics. Throughout all of the scrutiny, he laughed in the faces of any who dared challenge him. He told lewd jokes about his sexual exploits and made fun of journalists and politicians. Somehow, enough Italians continued to tolerate him as prime minister.
Gabriella Carlucci, a legislator and ex-show girl who up until last week was a member of Berlusconi’s PDL party (the People of Freedom party in English), accurately summed up the source of his appeal. She said her teenage sons idolize him because his sense of humor and sexual prowess make him relatable. His personality fits with a persistently macho Italian culture.
This is where international forces come into play. None of the scandals was enough to get him voted out of office. Heightening pressure from the European Union and the global financial markets was the stimulus for his resignation. Without the euro zone crisis, he likely would have ruled Italy for the rest of his life.
Berlusconi was a dangerous phenomenon for media and democracy. His control over national public opinion insulated him from harm. The Italian media landscape will undoubtedly benefit from his resignation.
Although he will no longer be running the country, something tells me our friend Berlusconi won’t stay out of the spotlight for long.
(The image is an official photo of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and is in the public domain. To see a recap of Berlusconi’s career, please check the video below.)