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EDITORIAL: It was rare for a former prime minister to have a state funeral. Multitudes of fans, too, came to say final farewell to him on Wednesday in his hometown, Milan. Tributes also poured in from EU leaders.

French President Emmanuel Macron described him as a “major figure in contemporary Italy” while Pope Francis hailed his “energetic spirit”. And as expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose controversial invasion of Ukraine he had defended — called him a “true friend” whose “wisdom” and “ability to make balanced far-sighted decisions” he had always admired.

All such praise and the send-off are exceptional for an out of power politician — though his party is still a junior partner in Giorgia Meloni’s coalition government. But Silvio Berlusconi who died aged 86 after a prolonged illness has left a huge mark on Italian politics and culture.

Berlusconi entered politics at age 57 without any background in the field or inspired by ideology. According to his critics, he came to protect his business empire he controlled through a family holding company and its several ancillaries (sounds familiar?).

Wooing voters with the promise of a better life he was elected prime minister four times, though forced out in 2011 as the economy came under acute stress due to a debt crisis.

While in office, he led a colourful life, throwing ‘bunga bunga’ parties where he sang and danced with young girls, much to the dislike of many. But he never changed. At the time of his demise he had a 33-year-old girl friend, leaving behind two ex-wives with five children.

He was loved and despised in equal measure for his style of politics — viewed as brash and authoritarian by his detractors — and playboy antics, prompting some to draw a parallel with former US president Donald Trump, now gearing up for another run for the office.

Berlusconi also faced several cases of financial wrongdoing and sex scandals, and was even convicted in some of them, though he managed to wriggle out using some legal loopholes. He is not known to have made any profound systemic reforms, yet he is seen as one of the most influential leaders his country has had.

He got there not only because of his populist politics but also the way he transformed the cultural landscape with his interests in TV, newspapers and sports.

Most of all, he changed what the Italians watched on TV, replacing the public broadcaster’s serious content with his own brand of rude jokes and half-dressed women — something the man in the street identified with.

It had enormous cultural and political impact in Italy and beyond. That is his abiding legacy for his country as well as some others in Europe.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

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