Silvio Berlusconi: ‘bounce-back politician’ dies aged 86

The former Italian prime minister was linked to a series of scandals in and out of office

Silvio Berlusconi pictured in 2022
Silvio Berlusconi led three governments between 1994 and 2011
(Image credit: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)

Italy’s controversial former leader Silvio Berlusconi has died at the age of 86.

The senator and leader of the Forza Italia party had been admitted to hospital in Milan on Friday “for what aides said were pre-planned tests”, France 24 reported. He had been discharged last month after spending six weeks undergoing treatment for a lung infection linked to chronic leukaemia.

Berlusconi made his name as a media tycoon before entering politics, but gained notoriety for a string of “sex scandals, countless allegations of corruption and a tax fraud conviction”, said The Guardian. Yet he was elected prime minister three times and served for a total of nine years, “longer than anyone since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini”, said CNN.

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Berlusconi once described himself as the “Jesus Christ of politics” and was proud of his humble beginnings. The son of a housewife and a bank employee, he studied law at university.

Even as a student, however, he “demonstrated the ability to make money”, said the BBC. After a stint working in nightclubs and on cruise ships as a singer, he amassed “a huge fortune” from a real estate firm that he founded in his native Milan.

Following a successful career as a media magnate, Berlusconi entered politics, promising to “make Italy great again”. He went on to lead three governments between 1994 and 2011.

His “unbounded bravado, unique brand of politics and tumultuous career became a playbook for ambitious politicians around the world”, said France 24.

He was a “big Italian boy, a jokester and a scallywag, a rascal,” said Deutsche Wells, “just the way many Italians liked it”.

Yet he was also an “extraordinarily divisive figure in Italy”, said The Wall Street Journal. Scandals including his late-night “bunga bunga parties” with young women “eroded the popular and political standing” that Berlusconi had achieved earlier in his career.

He also suffered numerous health issues including heart problems. But in 2022, “nine years after he was banned from public office for tax fraud”, said the BBC, the “bounce-back politician” returned to the Senate after securing a seat in the general election.

With his death, “a piece of Italian history” ends, said La Repubblica, “In the last fifty years, there hasn’t been a day in which his name hasn’t been mentioned. It is hard to imagine an Italy without him.”

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Rebekah Evans joined The Week as newsletter editor in 2023 and has written on subjects ranging from Ukraine and Afghanistan to fast fashion and "brotox". She started her career at Reach plc, where she cut her teeth on news, before pivoting into personal finance at the height of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. Social affairs is another of her passions, and she has interviewed people from across the world and from all walks of life. Rebekah completed an NCTJ with the Press Association and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Week magazine, the Press Association and local newspapers.