Berlusconi: Italian ex-PM refusing to let go

·3-min read

Silvio Berlusconi will turn 86 next week but the scandal-plagued former Italian premier and billionaire media mogul has refused to retire and is leading his Forza Italia party into Sunday's general election.

His right-wing party is polling at just eight percent but looks set to enter government as part of a coalition led by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni.

"Il Cavaliere" (The Knight) is himself running for the Senate, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi has rarely been seen in public during the campaign but his name and smiling face -- heavily photo-shopped -- are on all the posters.

He has also started his own TikTok channel, appearing in a smart suit to tell jokes or hail the success of his Monza football club.

There is speculation Berlusconi is angling for a job as head of the Senate after Sunday's vote, a last pitch for power after his bid to become Italy's president failed in January.

Few thought he had any chance of being elected to the largely ceremonial post by parliament but his candidacy was typical of a man who once compared himself to Napoleon and Jesus Christ.

In a recent TikTok video, Berlusconi delivered a verdict on Italy's other political leaders before adding of himself: "I have always been number one."

- Legal woes -

Berlusconi has dominated public life in Italy for decades, first as a businessman, building up a huge empire including media, real estate and the AC Milan football club, before entering politics.

After his first election victory in 1994, he was premier for only nine months. But he won again in 2001 after a US-style campaign in which he promised jobs and economic growth, signing a "Contract with Italians" live on television.

He served until 2006, and returned as prime minister between 2008 and 2011, making him the longest-serving premier in Italy's post-war history.

For a decade Italy's richest person, Berlusconi touted his glamorous lifestyle and bravado and promised a low-tax, deregulated economy in which Italians might emulate his success.

To his critics, he was a tax-evading playboy who used his vast media empire to further his political career and then exploited his power to protect his business interests.

His friendships on the world stage -- dallying with Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and skiing with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- also drew controversy.

In April, six weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Berlusconi broke his silence over the war to say he was "deeply disappointed" at Putin's behaviour.

Ahead of the election, he has sought to portray his party as a more moderate force than his far-right allies Meloni and Matteo Salvini, emphasising his pro-European, pro-Atlanticist stance.

Prosecutors snapped at his heels throughout his time in office, although he has never been in jail.

In 2013, Berlusconi faced his first definitive conviction for tax fraud, which saw him carry out community service.

But he continues to face the fall-out of his parties at his villa near Milan, which had a private nightclub.

He was sentenced to seven years in 2013 for paying for sex with then 17-year-old Karima El-Mahroug, later overturned after the judge said there was reasonable doubt that he knew she was underage.

Last year, a court in Tuscany acquitted him of bribing a witness to lie about the parties, but related proceedings continue elsewhere.