Berlusconi and the Fires He Starts

Italy's right-wing government is raising hackles among workers and his own coalition alike as the premier bemoans the need to accomodate the opposition

PRIME Minister Silvio Berlusconi is getting it from all sides these days.

His style of governance has created conflict not only with opposition political parties but even with his ruling coalition, union leaders, workers, and retirees. And continuing concerns about his dual role as prime minister and business magnate are impeding his government's effectiveness.

Mr. Berlusconi ``seems to have a special talent for saying either the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way,'' says Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador to the Soviet Union and a history professor at Milan's Bocconi University.

Several statements have raised eyebrows:

* If he should receive an avviso di garanzia, the notification from Italy's magistrates that one is officially under investigation, Berlusconi said he would not resign. His Fininvest company is currently the target of several probes.

* While in Moscow, Berlusconi spoke admiringly of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's strong executive powers and added that he wished that leading a government was like leading a company, where people from all points of view had their say and then one person made a decision. These remarks followed a Rome radio interview in which he lamented how much time the government had to waste in responding to the opposition in Parliament.

* Still from Moscow, Berlusconi said he hoped the Italian television and film industry would stop making productions like La Piovra (``The Octopus''), a successful anti-Mafia TV mini-series. ``Do we want about 100 people to give a negative image to the whole world?,'' Berlusconi asked, referring to the Mafia.

``It is well to remember that Cosa Nostra has an army of at least 50,000 persons,'' counters Luciano Violante, the former head of the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission.

Hearing the workers

The prime minister's latest challenge came in the form of the largest general strike in postwar Italian history last weekend. Berlusconi at first appeared to reject workers' demands, but has since agreed to consider them.

The Oct. 14 general strike brought 3 million people into the piazzas of more than 90 Italian cities. The trade unions said the government is penalizing retirees who are less well off and asked it to reopen negotiations on pension reform. They called for a new national demonstration by 1 million workers in Rome on Nov. 19.

The reform is needed, government and union leaders agree, because the country can no longer afford to support one of the world's most-generous state-run pension systems. The government went on the defense this week with commercials aired on the state-owned RAI television saying that without the reform, ``the state would no longer be in a position to pay out pensions.'' At the same time, it assures that current benefits will not be reduced.

The opposition cried foul, arguing that there are many half-truths in the information - for example, the implication that the government's choice of reductions is the only one possible. And, they say, the unpaid advertising itself is government propaganda rather than the ``social usefulness'' provided for under the law.

While the government is telling Italians that their state-run pension program is in desperate straits, Berlusconi's Fininvest conglomerate is advertising for its private retirement funds.

Rebalancing the powers

Berlusconi's yearning for stronger executive powers also created a stir.

The Italian Constitution, Mr. Romano says, drafted after World War II and the Fascist dictatorship, deliberately gave the Parliament strong powers. But over the years, he says, Parliament has assumed still more power.

``Nothing was really done to strengthen the executive and so as a result we have a rather lopsided system,'' Romano says.

In an article in Sunday's La Voce newspaper, Irene Pivetti, the Chamber of Deputies Speaker, Berlusconi quoted as saying that the new government leaders ``have a culture of business, from which they come, not the culture of democracy.''

Criticism over the conflict of interest between his political and business roles came to a head recently when the government wrote the Italian president a letter of protest against the Milan chief prosecutor, whose court is conducting a sensitive probe that could involve Fininvest.

``The [conflict-of-interest] problem is not resolved by eliminating the judges' control over politicians, but by eliminating the confusion of roles of politician and private citizen,'' said Ms. Pivetti, a member of the Northern League, a ruling coalition partner.

When the article appeared, however, Pivetti contested the citations, saying that she had explicitly determined before her lunch with the article's author that their conversation was not an interview. In any case, she added, the quotations ``do not in any way reflect my thinking.''

La Voce stood by the story, but said that out of respect for Pivetti and her office it did not intend to press the issue.

``The problem of rules exists, and for the Berlusconi government, the problem of incompatibility exists in particular,'' she continued, referring to Berlusconi's conflict of interest. @DIVVY =

Ads draw questions

While the Pivetti controversy was gathering steam, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party brought out its own advertising. It attacked the left in an ad broadcast several times, including twice on Sunday on Berlusconi's leading TV network during the day's most-watched TV program.

The ad opens with a depressing black-and-white picture of a ghetto and the voice-over, ``If the left had won [in parliamentary elections] March 27, Italy would have had a future without well-being and without freedom.''

The screen comes alive with color. A rose blooms into a Forza Italia flag. ``But Italy chose to be free, honest, and prosperous,'' continues the announcer, as new images of happy, working Italians appear, along with favorable economic results achieved during Berlusconi's term in office. ``Forza Italia has created confidence, launching a new Italian miracle.''

The left protests that not only are the invidious comparisons unjust but that they violate European Union regulations that forbid comparisons in advertising.

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