June 16, 2024 5:11 am

Italy mourns and asks who will succeed Berlusconi

Italy has held a state funeral for ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, attended by political leaders, his family and a string of ex-girlfriends.

Thousands of mourners gathered in Milan’s main square to say a final farewell to the one-time cruise singer who led Italy with no prior political experience and built a media empire.

As Berlusconi’s coffin entered the cathedral, they chanted: “Silvio will always be our president.”

There were flags, tears and applause.

The Archbishop of Milan led the funeral, in a cathedral packed with 2,000 relatives, friends, and allies and rivals from Italian politics and business. Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, were among the few figures from the world stage.

“To be happy means to love parties, to enjoy life to the fullest, and to have a sense of humour,” said Archbishop Mario Delpini in a homily that encapsulated the four-time prime minister’s flamboyant life.

Berlusconi was a divisive figure for Italians, and renowned abroad for his crude jokes and so-called bunga-bunga parties.

In the front row of the cathedral were his five children, who have been catapulted into the limelight, as part of an inevitable succession story.

Pallbearers carry the coffin of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during his state funeral at the Duomo Cathedral, in Milan, Italy June 14, 2023IMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
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Berlusconi’s coffin left the cathedral flanked by Carabinieri police in plumed helmets

During his lifetime, Berlusconi amassed a vast empire that spanned media, real estate, finance, cinema and sport – as well as a powerful political party that is part of Italy’s current government.

He was one of Italy’s richest men. According to Forbes, his business assets are worth about €6bn (£5.15bn).

But he never publicly indicated who should lead his business empire after his death and there are also big questions over the future of the Forza Italia party he created.

Berlusconi has two children from his first marriage and three from his second. All of them have stakes in Fininvest, his holding company.

The future of his business interests will likely depend on how he has chosen to distribute the 61% stake he had in Fininvest.

Will there be equal shares for all, or more for the two eldest children, Marina and Pier Silvio, who have held management roles in the empire since the early 1990s?

Silvio Berlusconi with his wife Veronica and their 3 children, Figli Luigi (5 years old), Eleonora (7 years old) and Barbara (9 years old).IMAGE SOURCE,OLYCOM SPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
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This 1993 picture shows Silvio Berlusconi with his wife Veronica and their 3 children, Luigi, Eleonora and Barbara
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Other valuable assets are undoubtedly Berlusconi’s numerous luxurious villas. They could be tricky to pass on to his offspring in an equal way.

His Villa San Martino in Arcore, north-east of Milan, covers 3,500 sq m and dates back to the 18th Century. He also has homes at Lake Maggiore, in Rome, Cannes, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

The jewel in Berlusconi’s crown of properties is Villa Certosa, a mansion in Sardinia that he bought in the 1970s.

He hosted world leaders there, from Vladimir Putin to George W. Bush. It has 126 rooms and looks like a theme park – including a fake volcano that erupts lava. Its value is estimated at €259m.

People close to the family have described Berlusconi as “the glue” who kept his children united.

There has been no dispute so far over who takes over the empire – that is expected to fall to his oldest child Marina, 56, considered closest of the five to her father.

The big question is whether that family unity can be maintained now that Berlusconi has gone, and what impact that might have on the future of his business empire.

Marina Berlusconi and Marta Fascina greet the coffin of Italy's former prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi outside the Milan Cathedral (Duomo) at the end of the state funeral in Milan, Italy, 14 June 2023IMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
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Berlusconi’s eldest daughter Marina (L) was considered closest of the five children to him. His girlfriend Martina Fascina is to her right

His death could prove disastrous for the future of his political party. Can Forza Italia survive without its charismatic creator – or could it fall apart in a matter of months?

He was the ultimate populist leader, and unsurprisingly, the party he created was entirely shaped around his persona.

His right-hand man, foreign minister Antonio Tajani, has categorically denied its future is at risk: “It’s unthinkable that the party would disappear.”

But Forza Italia’s share of the vote had already slipped to 8% in last September’s general election.

Many Italians who backed the party did so because they were Berlusconi loyalists and it will be tricky to appoint a successor they will warm to.

In reality, party members will probably look to the Berlusconi family to make a decision.

Will the two eldest, Marina and Pier Silvio, want to keep investing in their father’s political creation, or will they turn off the financial tap and cut their losses?

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Pier Silvio Berlusconi runs the commercial TV side of the family’s Fininvest holding

Without their financial support, Forza Italia has no chance of surviving. Berlusconi heavily funded his party – reportedly injecting it with nearly €100m.

There is some speculation that Marina could succeed him as leader, but for now this remains a rumour. She is seen as more of a behind-the-scenes operator.

Another unknown is Berlusconi’s partner Marta Fascina, who is 53 years his junior. She’s an MP in his party and has said several times that “her passion is politics and she grew up with the myth of Silvio Berlusconi”.

Berlusconi’s eldest daughter reportedly blocked his plan to marry her last year. So there is a cloud over Ms Fascina’s future role in her late partner’s party.

One thing is certain: if Forza Italia does fracture, it would be a big problem for the other members of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition government.

Political instability looms after Wednesday’s day of national mourning.

In a country so well-known for regular political crises, a government collapse triggered by the disintegration of one of the coalition partners does not seem such an unlikely scenario.

Until now, Berlusconi’s children have avoided the limelight. But his death might force them to emerge from the shadows to take the reins of his empire.

Berlusconi had health problem for years so it is likely he and his children had thought all of this through.

They might opt for an easy transition heralded by their eldest sister Marina, rather than get into a succession battle which could go wrong.

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