Raising Eyebrows Near and Far, Berlusconi Starts to Rule in Italy

Right-wing leader pledges to abide by the Constitution

SILVIO BERLUSCONI has begun work as Italy's new prime minister amid apprehensions at home and abroad.

Mr. Berlusconi's government is comprised of ministers from five parties, including the neo-Fascist National Alliance and the Northern League, a party that many Italians believe wants to break up the country.

Europeans are worried about the continuity of Italy's pro-European Union stance and the possible resurgence of Fascism, while Italians express concern about the future of social services under a right-wing government.

Speaking to the nation after announcing the country's new ministers Tuesday, Berlusconi said his first task would be to attend to economic recovery. In a Ronald Reagan-style plea to ``get the government off our backs,'' he said he intended to reduce ``the enormous quantity of laws and regulations'' governing business. But, he added, he did not have a magic wand, and it would take time to accomplish these tasks.

He also revealed sensitivity to criticism over the length of time it took him to form a new government, noting that he did it within 11 days of being named prime minister designate.

The ministers sworn in yesterday include five each of the neo-Fascist National Alliance and the separatist Northern League, and eight from Berlusconi's Forza Italia, which, though only formed months ago, garnered the most votes in March's election.

The next step is for the government to receive a vote of confidence from the two houses of Parliament, led by Senate Speaker Carlo Scognamiglio of Forza Italia and Chamber Speaker Irene Pivetti of the Northern League. If the government runs into difficulties, they are expected in the Senate, where Mr. Scognamiglio won election as speaker by a single vote.

Concern within Italy over Berlusconi's Cabinet choices was reflected Tuesday in an unprecedented letter from the head of state, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, to Berlusconi. In it he urged that international agreements be respected (apparently in reference to the reported anti-European bias of the Foreign Minister Antonio Martino), that the unity and indivisibility of Italy be guaranteed (apparently referring to Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a key League leader who is also one of two deputy prime ministers), and that the government not forget the principle of solidarity articulated in Italy's Constitution.

Berlusconi responded by saying he fully intended to follow the Constitution faithfully.

Mr. Scalfaro's warning followed a May 4 European Parliament motion expressing concern over having the National Alliance in the Italian government.

BERLUSCONI is the first businessman to be prime minister in the post-World War II era. He tapped the former vice president of his Fininvest company, Gianni Letta, to be his undersecretary.

The opposition has called on Berlusconi to put Fininvest, which includes television stations, supermarkets, financial companies, publishers, and sports teams, into an American-style blind trust.

Although he has resigned administrative responsibilities, to date Berlusconi has not taken further steps to distance himself from his company.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the largest opposition party, issued a statement promising to be a staunch foe of the new government, which the PDS said embraces too much economic and media power.

The PDS has pledged to hold Berlusconi to his campaign promises, including the creation of a million jobs and the reduction of taxes. ``We'll be a serious, programmatic, very tough opposition,'' says Claudio Ligas, PDS spokesman.

He is worried about the casual way most Italians seem to treat the combination of Berlusconi's political power as prime minister with his ownership of Fininvest.

``We know who Berlusconi is, and yet this doesn't create any sense of embarrassment. And this is what causes the most concern,'' says Mr. Ligas, who goes on to offer a possible explanation for the apparent nonchalance. ``It's a country in which we've never made serious investment in education, in which people don't read the newspapers much.''

Il Manifesto, the daily newspaper allied with the small Communist Refoundation party, ran a completely black front page yesterday, with white headline, reading: ``Black Government. Fascists and monarchists, League members and Christian Democrat scraps, industrialists, lawyers, and agents of Fininvest: These are the ministers of the Berlusconi government. A close-knit government of the extreme right, that owns three national television stations, many newspapers, and that will control the RAI [state-owned television]. A government that divides Italy and to which Scalfaro pathetically recommended the country's unity.''

Mario Segni, the former Christian Democrat who championed the referendum movement that brought a British-style electoral system to Italy, has also promised to wage a campaign against the concentration of media power in Berlusconi's hands.

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