Italians tip toward a tycoon
Despite scandals, far-right allies, Silvio Berlusconi is expected to win Sunday's vote.
Anywhere else in Europe, a government that fosters respectable economic growth, brings down unemployment, and restores health to the public purse might reasonably expect to win reelection.Skip to next paragraph
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But in Italy, all the signs are that when voters go to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections, they will cast such considerations aside.
Instead, they will seek salvation from an outmoded political system in the arms of a flamboyant billionaire, Silvio Berlusconi.
That prospect has stirred a chorus of alarm from Italy's European neighbors. Mr. Berlusconi is not only the richest man in the country and owner of its three top commercial TV networks. He is also embroiled in a string of court cases in which he is accused of fraud, tax evasion, and corruption. And he has allied himself both with the party that inherited Benito Mussolini's mantle and a far-right xenophobic movement.
None of this is expected to stop Berlusconi's coalition, the House of Freedoms, from winning on Sunday. The latest opinion polls put him 4 points ahead of his closest opponent, Francesco Rutelli, head of the center-left Olive Tree coalition.
"Italians are profoundly disenchanted" with a tradition of revolving-door governments repeatedly formed by the same political forces that have ruled the country since World War II, says Tana de Zulueta, an Olive Tree senator in danger of losing her seat.
Hopes that the center-left might build a new and more responsive system from the ruins left by corruption scandals in the early 1990s have been "betrayed," she complains.
Berlusconi, meanwhile, "will win because he is perceived as coming from outside politics," predicts Giuliano Ferrara, who was spokesman for the short-lived government that Berlusconi headed in 1994.
"He presents an image of believing what he is saying, which is an impression traditional Italian politicians can no longer convey," adds James Walston, who teaches politics at the American University of Rome.
Nor do Italian voters appear unduly concerned by the persistent allegations against the conservative leader of sleazy business dealing, which led the influential magazine The Economist to declare Berlusconi "unfit to lead Italy."
Berlusconi claims he has been persecuted by leftist judges who launched a Clean Hands campaign against corrupt politicians and businessmen 10 years ago, and he enjoys a certain sympathy for this view among the electorate.
Despite five years of investigations into 10 different cases, prosecutors have not yet managed to send him to jail. "This is a soup that has been simmering too long" for voters to care very much, suggests Franco Pavoncello, dean of John Cabot University in Rome. "It has been stirred so long that everything is confused."
Berlusconi has acknowledged, however, that if he became prime minister he could face clear conflicts between the interests of his sprawling business empire - spanning publishing, TV, banking, and property - and the interests of the country. He has promised to deal with this question within three months of the election - though he has not explained how - and Italians do not see the problem in the same light as others might, say political observers.