Europe Frets Over Possible Spread Of Italy's `Televisual Coup dtat'


THE meteoric rise to political triumph of businessman and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi in Italy's recent parliamentary elections has Europe caught off guard and uneasily contemplating what the victory means for traditional Western democracy.

The French are busy testing new words to describe the phenomenon - should it be tpopulisme or tcracie, or simply ``Berlusconism,'' after Thatcherism and Reaganism? - while the Spanish try out teledemocracia.

Meanwhile, some Germans see the Italian vote and the Berlusconi campaign's heavy reliance on slick and blanketing use of television and wonder if television shouldn't be banned completely in their federal elections. In addition, Germany shudders at the thought of its own far right doing even half as well as Italy's neo-Fascists did in winning more than 13 percent of the vote.

As recently as 1992 many Europeans believed the rise of a wealthy and telegenic leader from outside traditional political party structures was largely an American phenomenon, exemplified best by Ross Perot. But the victory of Mr. Berlusconi and his Forza Italia, only three months after the political organization's creation, reveals that Europe is also fertile ground.

``A televisual coup dtat has just occurred under our noses,'' says Paul Virilio, a French philosopher focusing on the role of the media in contemporary society. ``It's no longer accurate to speak in terms of the traditional left/right political alternation. As of now its between media and politics.''

That may be going too far, even though reactions to Berlusconi's victory have been strong. Former French defense minister and socialist traditionalist Jean-Pierre Chevenement called the Italian results ``the victory of an uncontrolled televisual power over democracy.''

Germany is not worried about the imminent rise of a Berlusconi, ``since right now no such figure exists here,'' says Bernd Hamm, director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Trier.

``But where the Italian elections have caused deep concern and much commentary is how the new right-wing groups should be handled in the [upcoming] television campaign,'' he adds. ``There's some discussion of stopping TV involvement altogether.''

Most observers point out that many factors particular to Italy aided Berlusconi's rise, not the least of which was the complete discrediting and collapse of the country's traditional political parties. But other factors, they add, are common to all Europe's democracies.

``Italy's young voters were especially sensitive to the Berlusconi campaign and to the sophisticated use of media to deliver an ephemeral, immediate message,'' says Genevieve Bibes, an Italian specialist at the Political Studies Institute of Paris. ``That is something that can play in all our countries.''

Europe's youth are among the least satisfied of all voters with traditional political formations, she says. ``We're going toward a political situation that is very different from the traditional emphasis'' on party structures and internal grooming of political leaders. ``In that sense the Berlusconi success is an indication of what's to come.''

Numerous observers have drawn parallels between Berlusconi and the emergence in France of flamboyant entrepreneur (and, like Berlusconi, soccer club owner) Bernard Tapie. The former minister, current member of Parliament and announced Marseille mayoral candidate, is frequently on news programs because of what one television executive calls his ``televisual attraction.''

What European political analysts and the public alike are now waiting for, says Spanish sociologist Luis Moreno, is to see whether Berlusconi can succeed. ``Despite all the fretting over an emerging teledemocracia, it seems Italy's old habits of bargaining and political trade-offs and fragile governments may be reemerging,'' Mr. Moreno says.

Despite that, Moreno recalls last year's Spanish elections, in which Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez is credited with wresting from conservative challengers on the merit of the second of two national televised debates.

``It indicates the power of television as a factor of growing importance in European politics,'' he says.

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