November 12th, 2011 marked the end of an era in Italian politics. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi officially signed his resignation, capping a 17-year stint in which he dominated the political scene of the country. Berlusconi’s resignation came at the brink of economic catastrophe in Europe. Borrowing rates on Italian bonds skyrocketed to such unprecedented levels that other euro zone countries were forced to seek bailouts. With Italian sovereign debt surpassing 7 percent, Italy’s most dominant figure of the past half century, Silvio Berlusconi, found himself with little choice but to step down as leader of his beloved country.
In an effort to combat years of economic stagnation under Berlusconi’s watch, as well as the financial crisis that has taken Italy and the rest of the Euro zone by storm, a collection of technocrats have been put into power. President Giorgio Napolitano spent this past weekend frantically meeting with the proper officials in an effort to establish a government under a freshly drafted austerity package. Former European Commissioner and economic juggernaut Mario Monti has been chosen as the newest Prime Minister of Italy. With a record of combating some of the largest corporations in the world during his nine years in Brussels, Monti boasts one of the best-tested and trained minds that Italy could ask for – experience that will prove to be pivotal if Italy will have any chance of effectively combating their disastrous sovereign debt issue. While Monti is most often described as calm, diligent, economically focused, steadfast, and brilliant, very different sets of adjectives come to mind when discussing Berlusconi.
When the world’s third-largest bond market began to buckle, Italian leaders finally had the means to successfully oust their celebrity leader in an effort to curtail the damage. But before examining the arduous task facing newly minted Prime Minister Mario Monti and his cabinet of technocrats, it would be instructive to take a deeper look into one of the most newsworthy individuals of this era, Silvio Berlusconi.
Immediately after the news was out that Berlusconi would be stepping down and leaving politics in general for the first time since 1994, an overwhelming number of Italians ran to the streets in jubilation. An impromptu orchestra and choir celebrated this momentous occasion with the ever-recognizable tune of “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah. As was recounted by several periodicals, cars and mopeds in downtown Rome waved Italian flags and honked their horns as they rejoiced the unbelievable news. For Italy’s younger generations, this day marked the end of an era that has taken up their entire lives.
For the better part of the past two decades, Silvio Berlusconi has had a virtual monopoly on Italy. Since 1994 he has sat at the helm of Italy’s political structure on three different occasions. His 8.5 years in the Prime Minister seat was a longer period of rule than that of any Italian leader since Benito Mussolini. During his tenure, Berlusconi successfully created two different political parties, and infiltrated nearly every channel possible in Italy. From politics, to media, to construction, to sports teams, Berlusconi has successfully asserted himself as the most powerful man in the country.
While Silvio Berlusconi has recently reached international notoriety due to the intensely dire financial situation in Italy, the Milan native has been turning peoples’ eyes in Italy for the better part of the past half-century.
The 75 year-old Berlusconi, whose assets were estimated to be worth nearly $9 billion in 2010, has been infamous among the globe’s first-world leaders as the most immature, selfish, and frankly, irresponsible leader of the world’s largest economies.
But if the Prime Minister is so immature and irresponsible, how has he held power for so long in Italy? The answer is complicated. Berlusconi has managed to “play the game” in Italy better than perhaps anyone. “La conoscenza,” as it is deemed in Italy, or “who you know,” as one may call it in the States, has played a crucial role in Berlusconi’s ability to achieve his place. Born into a middle-class family in Italy’s most cosmopolitan city, Milan, Berlusconi successfully found his way to prominence in several industries. Starting with the construction of a 10,500 apartment building project in an eastern suburb of Milan, which he carried out in the late ‘60s and later deemed “Milano Due”, Berlusconi has been able to leverage his resources, connections, and Italy’s notoriously corrupt system to boost him into the role of the biggest player in the game.
Berlusconi quickly took much of his capital gained from Milano Due to start a media group called Fininvest. At this time he made a brilliant and strategic decision. As a young, ambitious, and upwardly mobile individual, Berlusconi was driven to be an influential player on the Italian scene, and was able to accomplish what he set out to do. Today, Berlusconi’s main company, Mediaset, is comprised of three national television channels, which cover approximately half of the national television sector. Additionally, Berlusconi owns the leading Italian advertising and publicity house, PubItalia. But his empire doesn’t stop there. Berlusconi has found his way into nearly every media channel in the country. As the controlling stakeholder in Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Italy’s largest publishing house, Berlusconi has effectively been able to put those closest to him in the most pivotal of roles in these companies.
Most notably, Paolo Berlusconi, Silvio’s brother, owns and operates a center-right newspaper with a heavily pro-Berlusconi tilt called Il Giornale. Additionally, Silvio’s latest wife, Veronica Lario, owned Italy’s most influential Italian right-wing newspaper, Il Foglio. However, after their recent divorce, Lario sold her stocks in 2010 to none other than Paolo, Silvio’s younger brother, whom now has commanding interest. And the list goes on. Berlusconi co-founded Mediolanum, one of the largest banking and insurance groups in Italy, and has interests in Medusa Film and Penta Film, two home-video distribution companies. And lastly, but perhaps most notably on an international level, Berlusconi owns one of the most prestigious and accomplished soccer clubs of all time, A.C. Milan.
Silvio Berlusconi epitomizes modern Italy in so many ways. A fun-loving, charismatic womanizer, with an incredible desire to be well liked, well dressed, and put together, Berlusconi also yearns for unprecedented power. He has successfully put his hands into nearly every influential pocket there is in Italy. For the past 17 years, Berlusconi has served as the face of Italy for the rest of the world, and has developed an intensely loyal following in certain regions of Italy. His main areas of support lie in and around his hometown of Milan, in northeastern Italy, and through much of southern Italy.
On a personal level, I spent the fall of 2011 living in Italy’s most left-leaning city, Bologna, where, as is probably evident from the ethos of this post, the vast majority of the largely collegiate population has looked onto Berlusconi with disgust.
There is no doubt that Mr. Berlusconi has a gift. He has an unbelievable ability to keep a smile on at all times, a true understanding of how to be well-liked, and an ability to project himself as any normal Italian, just perhaps “a little richer” than the rest of them. However, his games and his power have officially been brought to a halt—at least in one capacity. While Berlusconi will remain one of the most influential men in Italy until the day he passes, I know many Italians who are now breathing the deepest sighs of relief, despite their horrific financial situation.
Selfishly, I know I will miss headlines targeting Mr. Berlusconi for his late night escapades with under-aged girls, his grand (and smug) grim that he wears so well during times of economic and political turmoil, and his crazy, “immature uncle” persona. Yet I also know much of Italy, and the rest of the world for that matter are deeply relieved to have Mr. Bunga Bunga out of office. Well, we’ll see if “Super” Mario Monti and his collection of technocrats can successfully mitigate a sovereign debt problem that Berlusconi, seemingly, didn’t even care about.
Sorry, Silvio, you had a nice run. Now it’s time for Italy to clean up your yucky little mess and alleviate many of the problems that have ridden the Peninsula for years.