Italy bids farewell to former PM and billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi

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Silvio Berlusconi was honored Wednesday with a state funeral in Milan’s Duomo cathedral and a day of national mourning, as his legacy — positive or negative — was being hotly debated among Italians.

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Tens of thousands of people outside the Duomo and within erupted in applause as a sign of respect as Berlusconi’s flower-draped casket was hoisted out of the hearse and into the cathedral. His children and companion teared up as the casket was placed in front of the altar.

Most Italians identify Berlusconi, a media mogul, soccer entrepreneur and three-time former premier, as the most influential figure in Italy over recent decades. But they remain sharply divided on whether his influence was for the better or worse, extending to whether the three-time former premier merits all the fuss and ceremony.

Berlusconi died at the age of 86 on Monday in a Milan hospital where he was being treated for chronic leukemia. His family held a private wake Tuesday at one of Berlusconi’s villas near Milan, the city where he made his billions as the head of a media empire before entering politics in 1994.

 


Political opponents are questioning not only the decisions of Premier Giorgia Meloni‘s government to hold a state funeral — an honor that can be afforded all former premiers — but to also declare a national day of mourning, which is more rarely invoked. In the case of the latter, flags are flown at half-staff and all political events not involving charity are put on hold, but it is otherwise business as usual.

“Berlusconi split Italy, he insulted adversaries for 30 years, he criminalized the magistrates and he didn’t recognize laws. What are we talking about?” journalist Marco Travaglio, a long-time Berlusconi critic and co-founder of the il Fatto Quotidiano daily, told private La7 TV on Tuesday. 

Nevertheless, thousands of Italians filled the piazza outside Milan’s Duomo to follow the funeral on two giant video screens while carabinieri in full ceremonial regalia awaited the arrival of the hearse bearing Berlusconi’s casket outside. Family members, political allies and opponents meanwhile were gathering inside. 

Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, were among the highest-ranking foreign dignitaries attending.

Meloni, who got her first government experience as a minister in a Berlusconi coalition, also will attend, along with League leader Matteo Salvini, whose party has long been allied with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Opposition politicians also are expected in a show of respect for a political figure with whom many had sparred.

Barbara Cacellari, a Forza Italia councilwoman and one-time candidate for the European Parliament, said protests over how to officially mark Berlusconi’s death showed a lack of respect. 

“The person must be respected per se. He is a person who represents the history of this country,” she said outside the cathedral, adding: “No one is without stains, I think.”

Berlusconi is widely recognized as a precursor to the type of populist politics that later would bring Donald Trump to power in the United States, both using their high profile as businessmen to springboard into the political arena, upending politics as usual along the way.

Supporters of Berlusconi’s legacy cite his success in unifying the Italian center-right after the collapse of the post-war political landscape with the 1990s “Clean Hands” corruption scandal. They also see his years as leader as periods of stabilization, after years of quickly rotating governments, while admiring his bold rule-breaking and irreverence, perhaps especially in the face of other global leaders.

“He did many big and small things, while suffering a mediatic and judicial aggression that only Craxi before him had endured,’’ Stefania Craxi, a senator in Berlusconi’s party and the daughter of late Italian leader Bettino Craxi told private TV La7 on Tuesday. Her father died in exile in Tunisia in 2000 after being convicted in absentia for involvement in illegal party financing.

Berlusconi’s detractors’ list of political damage is long, including conflicts of interest relating to his media empire, dozens of trials mostly for business dealings, revelations of sex-fueled bunga-bunga parties at his villa near Milan and questionable associations, including his enduring friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“He is not a leader who helped us grow,’’ said Beppe Severgnini, a long-time foreign correspondent and writer for Corriere della Sera. “He tapped all of our weaknesses: moral, fiscal, sexual, everything.”

(AP)



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