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Italy's former PM Berlusconi paved the way for populists

A showman billionaire who entered politics late and took the fight to the "establishment" with his straight-talking charm, Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi paved the way for right-wing populists.

"He's the first. He invented everything," John Foot, modern Italian history professor at Bristol University, told AFP following Berlusconi's death on Monday aged 86.

"Everything revolved around him, his life, his success as a businessman, the simple slogans, the use of television," he said.

These were "all the tricks that other populists would copy", from the United States' Donald Trump to Britain's Nigel Farage, Hungary's Viktor Orban and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, he added.

After making his fortune in the construction industry and then the media, Berlusconi ran for election for the first time in 1994, with a video message in which he painted himself as a fresh start -- an essential step for today's budding populists.

"The country... needs people with their heads on their shoulders... new men" to replace the corrupt "orphans of communism", he said.

He would be a "worker-Prime Minister" and end the "policy of incomprehensible chatter, stupid bickering, and politicians without real jobs".

His timing was impeccable, making his entrance in the middle of a vast anti-corruption operation which decapitated the political class.

Once in power, he protected himself from a series of legal woes by changing the laws on fraud, corruption and financial crimes. 

- 'One of you' -

Many Italians saw themselves in Berlusconi: they too were not fans of the taxman, they liked scantily dressed women, they adored football.

They thought they paid too much tax while toiling for modest pay packets.

It was to them that Berlusconi justified slashing public funds for research, asking "why should we pay a scientist when we manufacture the best shoes in the world?".

"Berlusconi tells the story of a self-made man capable of doing without the state thanks to a 'liberal revolution' which will allow all Italians who want to, to become entrepreneurs", philosopher Anna Bonalume told AFP.

"This promise -- I'm one of you, you can become what I am -- is the very essence of populism," said Bonalume, who wrote an essay on another of Italy's strongmen, Matteo Salvini, called "A month with a populist".

Berlusconi painted himself as the defender of the people, a man who made a fortune despite the shackles of the state.

He used accessible rather than high-flying language, controlled much of the media, and shrugged off sexist and misogynistic behaviour as harmless fun.

"Trumpism bears the imprint" of Berlusconism, the left-wing Repubblica daily said Tuesday, calling Berlusconi "The first populist".

 

- 'Trump, 30 years earlier' -

 

Berlusconi is "Trump, 30 years earlier", said Surrey University politics professor Daniele Albertazzi.

The message is the same: "The political elite have tricked you, but here I am, I've made billions through my cleverness, my hard work, and I want to do for the country what I did for myself."

And like the former US president, Berlusconi constantly portrayed himself as a victim to justify his political or legal setbacks: "A victim of the judges, of the political system, of the 'establishment', of the referees," said Foot.

There was one notable difference between the two men though, he said.

Berlusconi "doesn't want to change politics for ideological reasons, it's just about himself and his business interests".

That never stopped him from playing the religious card -- a strong marker of identity for right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was an astonishingly brazen move, Albertazzi said, "when you think of Berlusconi's extra-marital relations, including with very young people when he was in his 80s".

But such contradictions did little to slow a man who -- like Trump after him -- used gratuitously offensive language borrowed from the "people".

At a Christmas party last year, he promised players at his Monza football club "a bus of whores" if they beat the top teams.

By Gael BRANCHEREAU

gab/ide/imm

© AFP/Wanted in Rome

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