THE man to beat in this month's Italian parliamentary elections is media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
His right-wing Forza Italia was launched as a political party in January, designed to boost the right's prospects for emerging victorious under Italy's newly reformed electoral system.
The Milan businessman has enjoyed stunning success in the opinion polls, though divisions with Forza Italia and aggressive campaigning from the left may erode his support in the run-up to the March 27-28 vote.
In about a month and a half, Mr. Berlusconi's party has garnered the backing of about a quarter of a nation looking for the way out of a series of corruption scandals that discredited an entire political class.
``I wouldn't vote for him myself, but I understand why he's popular,'' says Rome resident Erminia Bosco. ``He's a new man and he's saying things people want to hear: `We want to change. We want to pay fewer taxes.' He'll certainly get a lot of votes.''
Mr. Berlusconi's new party and his candidacy for Parliament were sharply criticized by the left, which accuses him of entering politics simply to protect his business interests (which likely would be curtailed by a victorious left).
Berlusconi owns three television networks that compete directly with the three state-owned RAI channels, TV and movie production companies, advertising agencies, the nation's leading newsweekly, book publishers, a supermarket chain, sports teams, and numerous other ventures. In no other Western country does one person have such media clout, his opponents say.
Buying air time
In an attempt to allay criticism, Berlusconi resigned from the leadership of Fininvest holding company, though he buys large amounts of time on his channels for Forza Italia commercials.
The ex-Communist left calls him Citizen Berlusconi, Big Brother, even the Italian Ross Perot. They add that anyone who admits to having been a close friend of Bettino Craxi, the ex-prime minister and former leader of the centrist Socialist Party, can hardly be considered a new face. Mr. Craxi is popularly seen as the architect of a system of kickbacks that allegedly netted the Socialist Party millions of dollars over the years.
Berlusconi entered politics, he told the nation in January, to save Italy from the ex-Communists who, he says, have not changed despite their rhetoric.
``Their men are still the same: Their way of thinking, their culture, their deepest convictions, their behavior are the same,'' he said. ``For this reason we're forced to go against them: because we believe in the individual, in the family, in business, in competition, in development, in efficiency, in the free market, and in solidarity born of justice and liberty.''
With the creation of an electoral system along British lines, Italy's numerous parties have formed three large coalitions.
Berlusconi reached an agreement in Italy's north with the Northern League of Umberto Bossi and in the south with the neo-Fascist National Alliance of Gianfranco Fini to deploy common candidates. They will run against a central coalition of former Christian Democrats and a broad-based left-wing coalition.
Although the polls show that Berlusconi's formation would win more than 50 percent of the vote if the elections were held today, the house that Silvio built is fragile and widely predicted to collapse immediately after the poll.
Mr. Bossi insists upon his ``federalist'' vision of Italy, in which there would be three republics (north, center, and south), something his foes say amounts to the old League secessionist rhetoric in fancy dress.
Bossi adds he would never govern with the National Alliance and has even told his faithful that for real change they should vote only for Northern League candidates, because Forza Italia is simply a group of recycled politicians of the ancien regime with whom he was forced to join to carry the League to victory under the new electoral system.
Mr. Fini, meanwhile, insists that Italy is indivisible, and he has fielded candidates in the north against Berlusconi and Bossi.
Beyond the dissent within his own ranks and opposition from the left, the media tycoon may also be hurt by the publication last month of ``Berlusconi: Investigation into Mr. TV,'' by two Italian journalists.
The book, updated from a 1987 edition, has become a bestseller. Before the first publication, the authors allege, Berlusconi and his agents tried to keep the book from appearing by taking the writers to court, by trying to buy the publishing house that was issuing it, and finally by offering one of the writers a blank check if he would agree to withdraw the book.
Among the questions raised by the authors:
* How did Berlusconi get the money to start up in the construction business (his first venture)? Much of it came, not from Berlusconi or his family, but from partners holding secret Swiss bank accounts, the authors say. Berlusconi has never revealed his partners' identities.
* What was the relationship between Berlusconi and the now-outlawed Propaganda Due (P-2) masonic lodge? The subversive, right-wing P-2 had a secret plan to take over the mass media, which the authors say corresponds closely with Berlusconi's own increasing media presence. Berlusconi plays down the affair, saying he joined P-2 only to please a friend.
* How much did Berlusconi benefit from his close relationship with Craxi? The authors say Berlusconi built his dominance in private broadcasting through the direct intervention of Craxi while the latter was prime minister.
Berlusconi says he received no special favors from Craxi.