IN recent days the atmosphere around the Berlusconi government in Rome has become very tense and heated. The ``Clean Hands'' investigation of corruption, led by prosecutors from Milan, is reaching into the Cabinet of billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Italian markets are shaking; politicians are caught in a swirl. On Wednesday Justice Minister Alfredo Biondi resigned in the morning, then withdrew his resignation later in the day. Mr. Biondi has been the target of a probe involving a bank crisis in the 1980s.
This is just the beginning. The five-month-old government has been controversial from the start for neofascist leanings and for charges of conflict of interest between Mr. Berlusconi's business and government roles. The prime minister recently signed a set of decrees, not laws, preempting the prosecution of illegalities for which his company, Fininvest, is being investigated. The decrees so shocked President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro that Italian papers Monday quoted him on Page 1: ``Tyrannies are born if the people sit at home and think only about their self-interest.''
Leading politicians such as Rocco Buttiglione, head of the Popular Party, say that it is only a matter of time before Berlusconi himself receives official notification that he is being investigated for a scandal involving Telepiu, a pay-per-view TV channel he partly owns. Investigators in Milan discovered that Fininvest bribed tax officials to not investigate the ownership of Telepiu. Under recent Italian law, Berlusconi cannot own more than 10 percent of Telepiu. If it is found he does, he would lose the three TV networks he now owns.
Last week Berlusconi signed a decree subverting current law. The decree states that past illegal media financing is no longer prosecutable. L'Espresso, a mainstream weekly, noted: ``We have never seen a prime minister who issued with his own signature decrees not only aimed at regulating the same sector he operates as a businessman, but that amazingly exclude punishment for illicit activities.''
Berlusconi may be adding to tensions by attacking via his media the efforts to investigate Fininvest. Ironically, the attacks target the same group in Milan that uncovered government corruption leading to the elections that put Berlusconi's ``Go For It, Italy'' party in office.
Telepiu is just one of a series of likely investigations of the Berlusconi government. The ex-head of RAI, Italian state TV, charges that the prime minister lobbied him to reduce RAI advertising time in a manner that would benefit Berlusconi's stations. The government is excitedly warning about unstable state pension funds, while at the same time Berlusconi's firm Mediolanum Vita is aggressively marketing a private pension program. There are also questions about why President Scalfaro was given the 1994 budget, a document several hundred pages long, only minutes before he had to approve it.
It may be a hot month in Rome.