Berlusconi To Get the Nod As Italy's Prime Minister

Forming government that will last is the challenge

`LUNA di miele,'' Italian for honeymoon, is not a word Italy's new premier, business tycoon, and media magnet, Silvio Berlusconi, is likely to hear as he takes the helm of his country's troubled political and economic ship.

The controversial Mr. Berlusconi, who in less than four months entered politics, formed a new conservative party, and won the March parliamentary elections, was to be asked by President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro last night to form a new government.

But even as Berlusconi sets about completing that task by next week, he faces difficulties that promise to keep Italy on its two-year political roller coaster ride. ``We in Italy are accustomed to very unsettled government, so you could say the situation before us does not break with our habits,'' says Antonio Landolfi, a University of Rome political scientist. What is new is the coalition that Berlusconi will have to hold together as a governing majority as he embarks upon what he calls Italy's ``renewal.''

Italy's 40-year postwar order was based on a powerful center-right and anti-Communist Christian-Democratic party, seconded by a moderate Socialist party. That has been replaced by a majority made up of Berlusconi's Forza Italia, a kind of Thatcherite right; the federalist Northern League; and the National Alliance, a nationalist right-wing party born out of a neo-Fascist organization. None has national government experience, and their links are neither warm nor strong.

``In the major democracies of the world, the opposition a new government faces is generally those formations, left or right, that lost the elections,'' says Roberto Aliboni, director of research at Rome's International Affairs Institute. ``But here the seeds of dispute are already sewn inside the governing coalition, so it's too early to speak of what this government will accomplish.'' The only common threads holding the parties together, says Mr. Landolfi, are the desires for power and to shift Italian government to the right.

In addition to the infighting, analysts say Italy's new premier faces two other difficulties: how to separate his huge private empire from his public role - and assuring scandal-scalded Italians that the separation is being respected - and how to deliver on campaign promises concerning the economy.

Berlusconi promised creation of a million new jobs, tax cuts, and a lower national debt. The last two are ``contradictory,'' Landolfi notes, and ``international experience is showing us that creating new jobs will be difficult even with more growth,'' he adds. Still, Italy's legions of small- and medium-business owners hold out great hopes for the less-tax, less-regulation environment their new premier is promising.

As for separating the tycoon-cum-premier's public and private interests, Berlusconi rejected the idea of a blind trust for his private holdings, suggesting that ``common sense'' would be enough to guarantee proper management of the issue.

Surprisingly, the first clash the new government faces could be in international affairs. The majority coalition is split over the seemingly small but emotional issue of an Italian minority of about 35,000 living in neighboring Croatia and Slovenia.

The Istrian peninsula southeast of Trieste, where the minority lives, was ceded to then-Yugoslavia in a treaty after Axis Italy's World War II defeat. Now the nationalist National Alliance wants the treaty revised - and Berlusconi's Forza Italia endorsed seeking a revision as well - an idea the regionalist and pro-Europe Northern League rejects.

``This will quickly become the kind of divisive issue Berlusconi has to avoid,'' Mr. Aliboni says, ``as well as an early test of the new government's foreign policy.'' Italy has been active in encouraging Eastern Europe's economic and democratic emergence since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but some analysts worry the Istria issue could portend a more nationalist approach to Italy's neighbors.

Internally, observers say the biggest question Italy faces is how the new majority, including a federalist force that speaks of splitting Italy into three republics and nationalists with neo-Fascist roots, will affect its postwar democratic, republican ideals.

In a clear signal to Berlusconi and his political allies, President Scalfaro announced, even before naming the new premier, that he would remain a vigilant guarantor of the ``principles that constitute the foundation of our republic,'' which he listed as ``freedom,'' ``one indivisible republic,'' and a peaceful foreign policy that had brought Italy ``esteem, honor, and trust.''

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