Italy: The Family Business

"The Patrimonial Ambitions of Silvio B"

by Paul Ginsborg
New Left Review 21, May–June 2003


On January 26, 1994, Silvio Berlusconi—the country’s richest man, owner of a vast real estate, publishing, financial, and media empire—appeared simultaneously on the three private TV networks he owns and announced that he was founding a new political party and running for prime minister. Berlusconi’s sudden appearance in the living rooms of most Italians, commandeering the airwaves for what sounded like a presidential address, created the bizarre sensation that he was somehow already prime minister even though the campaign was just beginning. It began to seem inevitable that he would be elected, and he was.

Instead of creating a million jobs as he promised in his first campaign for prime minister, Berlusconi seemed more interested in taking over the state broadcasting system. As evidence of systematic bribery of officials and political payoffs by some of his companies emerged, Berlusconi began to dedicate much of his energies to trying to derail an investigation into his corrupt practices, including paying off judges in a civil case involving a corporate takeover. His fractious coalition fell apart; he was indicted on bribery charges and his government fell after only eight months.

Although he had to wait more than six years to return as prime minister, Berlusconi was not really out of power. His party, Forza Italia (Go, Italy!), a name taken from the soccer slogan chanted at Italy’s national soccer games, remained the largest party in parliament and he has continued to expand his power base, protecting his monopoly of television, weakening the Italian judiciary, and remaining Italy’s most visible, audible, and powerful politician, not least by personally employing thousands of Italians who help him achieve his political ambitions.

For example, fifty deputies elected to parliament on Berlusconi’s original Forza Italia list in 1994 worked for his advertising company, Publitalia, while dozens of others were employed by other Berlusconi companies or owed their livelihood to him in one way or another, working as lawyers, consultants, television stars, or journalists, or holding contracts as contributors to his vast network of newspapers, magazines, and TV stations. Those of Berlusconi’s associates who were at greatest risk of winding up in jail in the various investigations into his business dealings were elected to parliament so that they could enjoy immunity from arrest. Few of them, busy with their outside jobs, bothered to show up at the meetings of the national assembly—until their trials began, at which point they claimed they needed to attend every session of parliament as a way of dragging out court proceedings by years.

In his first government, Berlusconi appointed as minister of the budget Giulio Tremonti, his own corporate tax attorney, who drafted a law that gave Berlusconi’s companies a tax write-off of 250 billion lire (then about $150 million). The law was supposedly designed to encourage new investment, but Berlusconi’s company Fininvest—now called Mediaset—simply shifted its assets from one Berlusconi company to another. When the write-off was challenged, Tremonti insisted that it was entirely consistent with the law he had written.


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