Berlusconi’s Death Puts Italy’s Future in the Hands of Two Women
Eldest daughter Marina and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni get a lift from the demise of the media mogul turned politician.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) — It was a scene worthy of . Silvio Berlusconi’s five heirs hurried to a private hospital in Milan to bid farewell to their ailing father, who had shaped Italy like no one else in its tortured postwar history.
His 33-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, was already there, having spent the night at his bedside. Fascina, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, exercises tremendous influence over Berlusconi’s political party, Forza Italia.
The eldest of Berlusconi’s children, Marina, was among the first to arrive, dark glasses and designer bag in hand. Long thought to be his favorite, springing to his defense scandal after scandal, she’s at the helm of the sprawling business conglomerate that includes the family crown jewel: holding company Fininvest SpA.
Even as an octogenarian, Berlusconi liked to joke he would live forever. With his death on June 12, the world will learn whether the legacy of the canny media mogul and four-term prime minister will actually outlast him.
In the minutes after Berlusconi’s death became public, the WhatsApp chatrooms of politicians immediately lit up. One comment: “only a media-savvy man like Berlusconi could die in the morning of a Monday, setting the whole agenda for the week.”
Abroad, the flamboyant and scandal-prone Berlusconi may have been dismissed as a clown, but he did lay the template for how a billionaire could become leader of a Group of Seven country—one that Donald Trump followed closely.
Long before he was a politician, Berlusconi was a businessman. He was the first to leverage his power as a media tycoon to get himself elected and to use his office to protect and expand his business interests. It was always about the business. The politics were a means to an end.
Valued at about €7 billion ($7.6 billion), Berlusconi’s business empire spans media, banking and sports. But to thrive, it will require more than his children showing a united front: It needs a new business model.
“For his companies this is an opportunity to innovate, introduce a new leadership, to solve challenges in a different way than the one he would have taken,” says Azzurra Rinaldi, an economist at Rome La Sapienza University.
Berlusconi’s succession plan will mainly focus on Fininvest, a holding company that includes Italy’s biggest commercial broadcaster, its largest publisher and a minority stake in a major bank.
Berlusconi held about 61% of the shares in Fininvest, with the remaining 39% divided among his heirs. His two oldest children—Marina and Pier Silvio—already occupy key management positions. Marina, 56, is chairman of Fininvest as well as of publisher Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, while Pier Silvio, 54, is chief executive officer of broadcaster MFE. The will is expected to confirm their roles.
Formerly known as Mediaset, MFE dominates the market for TV advertising in Italy, with a more than 40% share. Back in the 1990s it was the launchpad for Berlusconi’s political ambitions. But as its founder aged and took his eye off the business, streaming giants such as Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. upended the industry’s revenue model.
The mogul’s death could make MFE an acquisition target for a company trying to create a pan-European broadcasting group. MFE shares have soared.
France’s Vivendi SE, which tried to take over Mediaset in 2016 and is now the company’s second-largest shareholder, might make another attempt at securing majority control. Also rumored to be sniffing around is Discovery+, a US streaming service.
While there’s a chance that Berlusconi’s companies will emerge as strong as ever, the future of Forza Italia, the political party he founded in 1994 and still chaired, is far more uncertain. It once dominated the political landscape, only to shrivel into the smallest of the center-right parties in the current coalition government.
The day before he died, Italy’s longest-serving premier had planned to host a meeting with officials to discuss the party’s future. With his passing, it’s not clear it even has one, party officials say privately.
“He leaves an orphaned party centered on its charismatic leader with no clear heir,” says Federico Niglia, co-author of a book on Berlusconi. “It remains to be seen if they will be able to reconstruct or fade away.”
This creates an opportunity for Meloni, who had a love-hate relationship with Berlusconi. When, in her 30s, she served in one of his governments, he dismissively referred to her as (“little one”). She went on to form her own party, Brothers of Italy, which would eventually eclipse his own.
It’s ironic that the death of a man who to many was the embodiment of toxic masculinity (google “Bunga Bunga room”) appears to have solidified the power of two women: Italy’s first female prime minister and one among the country’s small minority of female CEOs.
Giorgia Meloni and Marina Berlusconi have a formal if cordial relationship. Marina, unlike her father, has demonstrated no interest in getting into politics. Berlusconi’s business legacy may endure—but his political one may have reached the end of the line.