Italian Right Wins Big, but Can It Rule?

Berlusconi's coalition of strange bedfellows gained parliament majority but may not last

THE main question following the victory of Italy's right in the March 27-28 parliamentary election is: Will it be able to govern?

Forza Italia, created a few months ago in response to right-wing media magnate Silvio Berlusconi's concern about a potential left-wing sweep of the voters, emerged from the new British-style electoral system as the country's leading party.

``The people have expressed a very strong desire for change, which is what democracy is all about,'' says Sergio Romano, a history professor at Bocconi University in Milan and a former Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union. ``There's this new element, which is Berlusconi, whether you like it or not.''

``The situation is - I would say - awful for the country,'' adds newly elected parliamentary deputy Rocco Buttiglione, of the losing center alliance.

Mr. Buttiglione predicts that the members of Mr. Berlusconi's coalition are so diverse ideologically that they will not be able to govern together, leading the country to return to the polls shortly for a new election.

Many Italians say they voted for the Berlusconi-led right, which at press time appeared to have won an absolute majority, for three reasons:

* Voters were seriously concerned about their sluggish economy and the problem of unemployment and concluded that the right was in the best position to bring about recovery.

Berlusconi repeatedly observed during the elections that he had created work for thousands of people through his vast business empire, which includes television stations, TV and movie production companies, magazine and book publishers, supermarkets, real estate ventures, financial companies, and professional sports teams.

``It's the unemployed who may have been rallying around Berlusconi, because Berlusconi was promising jobs,'' Mr. Romano says. ``He had as an argument his own personal background.''

* Voters perceived Berlusconi and his allies to be in a position to change a political system discredited after more than two years of judicial investigations into political corruption. They rejected charges by Berlusconi's opponents that his party was linked to organized crime and was recycling failed politicians and policies.

* Voters were worried about a victory of the left, which they still perceived to be Communist, nearly five years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The election was a stunning defeat for the left, following mayoral victories last year in Rome, Naples, Palermo, and other cities. In the cold war period, Italy had Western Europe's largest Communist Party, which was excluded from office by the other main parties. The results suggest that the majority of Italians want to maintain this arrangement, called ``a blocked democracy.''

``That there should be this kind of bigotry in the Italian public, I'm not entirely surprised,'' Romano says. ``Berlusconi has definitely encouraged it.''

THE leaders of Berlusconi's coalition now have to decide whether they can govern together. Berlusconi's Forza Italia is aligned with the Northern League of Sen. Umberto Bossi in the north and the southern National Alliance's parliamentary deputy Gianfranco Fini.

``The right has won, but it won't be able to form a government,'' says Achille Occhetto, leader of the Democratic Party of the Left. ``The mathematical sum of the right-wing forces does not constitute a political majority, as Bossi's own declarations make clear.''

Berlusconi is a big businessman, whereas the Northern League represents Italy's traditional small businesses. Senator Bossi has repeatedly attacked the ``Fascists'' of the National Alliance, while Mr. Fini has said he will not govern with the League so long as it supports separating the north from the south of Italy.

``The real problem is that they made an electoral coalition in order to bring to Parliament as many deputies as possible, but there is no real political coherence in it, so there is a real possibility that they will split in a very short time,'' Buttiglione says.

Bossi is going to be the critical element in deciding whether the Berlusconi coalition will work, Romano says.

After the polls closed and exit poll data began trickling in, Bossi said what was needed was a government program that represented concrete, radical change away from ``the old regime.''

While this did not constitute a rejection of Berlusconi and Fini, other noises from the outspoken Bossi were more ominous. He was not an ally of the National Alliance, but only of Forza Italia, and if the people had voted for the ``Fascists,'' he said, it meant that they had not understood anything about the need for change. Forza Italia represented recycled politicians of the ``regime,'' which was fighting to survive. Berlusconi could not become prime minister, he said, because as head of the government he would constantly be making business decisions that affected himself.

Buttiglione predicts a struggle will begin within the League between those who feel they owe their seats to Berlusconi and those who remain loyal to Bossi.

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