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Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi dies, aged 86

Scandal-plagued former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire who created Italy’s largest media company before transforming the political landscape, has died aged 86.

A showman leader known for financial scandals and erotic ‘bunga bunga’ parties, Mr Berlusconi had been suffering leukaemia “for some time” and had recently developed a lung infection.

He died at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, according to Italian media.

Over the years he had also suffered heart ailments and prostate cancer, and was taken to hospital after a COVID-19 infection in 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first to pay tribute to “a true friend” who he described as an outstanding politician.

The two world leaders were long-time allies and became personal friends.

Mr Berlusconi sparked outrage before Italy’s election last year when he said Mr Putin had been “pushed” into invading Ukraine.

Mr Putin said Russia would remember the former Italian leader as a “consistent and principled supporter of strengthening friendly relations between our countries”.

“He made a truly invaluable personal contribution to the development of mutually beneficial Russian-Italian partnerships,” said Mr Putin.

“For me, Silvio was a dear person, a true friend. I have always sincerely admired his wisdom, his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions even in the most difficult situations.

“During each of our meetings, I was literally charged with his incredible vitality, optimism and sense of humour. His death is an irreparable loss and great sorrow.”

‘Huge void’ in Italian politics

Although Mr Berlusconi no longer had a role in government, his death is likely to destabilise Italian politics in the coming months.

Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto said Mr Berlusconi’s death left a “huge void” because he was a great man.

“I loved him very much. Farewell Silvio,” Mr Crosetto wrote on Twitter.

The Milan-born politician’s career was riddled with sex scandals and corruption allegations.

He was convicted of tax fraud a decade ago and banned from holding office for two years, although his four-year prison sentence was exempt.

Mr Berlusconi was also accused and initially formally convicted of paying for sexual services from 17-year-old Karima El Mahroug, known by the stage name “Ruby the Heart Stealer”.

He was eventually found not guilty on appeal but the trial hung over him for years.

Legal woes accompanied Mr Berlusconi throughout his political career and he was convicted in at least seven cases on serious charges, including bribing a senator and paying off judges.

‘Bunga bunga’ parties

His sex life was often played out in the world’s press, including lurid details of his notorious “bunga bunga” parties.

Although Mr Berlusconi made light of his reputation as a philanderer, his second wife Veronica Lario did not and she asked for a divorce, saying she could not live with a man who “frequented minors”.

She was initially awarded one of the biggest divorce payouts in Italian history – 1.4 million euros ($2.42 million) a month in maintenance. But like many court rulings that went against him, Mr Berlusconi appealed and the sum was later reduced to zero.

The many scandals took their toll and in 2011 he quit as prime minister as Italy came close to a Greek-style debt crisis.

A jeering crowd shouted their delight when his cortege headed to the president’s office to hand in his resignation.

However, as the years progressed Mr Berlusconi’s battered image regained something of its old lustre and he was increasingly seen as an elder statesman who exerted a moderating influence on more extremist forces in his conservative camp.

He never remarried but in 2022, he held a “symbolic” marriage with his partner Marta Fascina, 53 years his junior, who wore a white bridal dress to the unofficial ceremony.

Mr Berlusconi was one of the most extraordinary characters to come out of Italy’s often bizarre political landscape, a flamboyant figure whose off-colour jokes alone would have killed a political career in most European Union countries.

After Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States, Mr Berlusconi congratulated him for being “tall, handsome and suntanned”.

But his often clownish personality and repeated plastic surgery hid a keen political mind and an almost uncanny talent for tapping into the fears and concerns of ordinary Italians.

Mr Berlusconi had no regrets about his political career, although he clearly felt he was often betrayed.

“All I know is that in both foreign and domestic politics I never made a single mistake,” he told Chi magazine in 2016.

“But when I come to think about it, I cannot recall the name of a single friend in politics.”

Topics: Italy
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