Never Say Never: Italian Premier May Ride Again

Berlusconi resigns after being named in graft probe and a rebellion by a coalition partner. But an election might restore him.

ITALIANS have not seen the last of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned yesterday under threat of three no-confidence motions in Parliament, one of them from a member of his own coalition.

President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro asked Mr. Berlusconi to stay on as caretaker leader and has scheduled consultations for today on the prospects of forming a new government, under Berlusconi or a new premier. Even if no agreement can be reached and elections must be held, the charismatic Berlusconi could yet resurrect his shattered political fortunes.

Berlusconi came to power following March elections, in which he beat out a political class that has been nearly wiped out by scandals. A large number of Italian voters thought that the successful businessman could turn around the sluggish economy and break decades of corruption.

His Forza Italia (Let's Go Italy) party joined with odd bedfellows, however, creating tensions within his government from the start: The Northern League, which seeks greater regional autonomy, chafes at its forced allegiance to the neofascist National Alliance.

After repeated threats, League leader Umberto Bossi finally balked for good, co-sponsoring one of the no-confidence motions against the prime minister. Beyond his discontent with the National Alliance, Mr. Bossi questions Berlusconi's ownership of Fininvest, a conglomerate of broadcasting, publishing, insurance, and real estate companies with an estimated $7 billion in revenues.

A questionable enterprise

Berlusconi's business empire has raised conflict-of-interest questions. Critics argue that as prime minister, Berlusconi dominates Italian TV, since Fininvest's three private networks compete directly with three state-owned TV stations.

When magistrates told Berlusconi Nov. 22 that he was under investigation for alleged corruption involving bribes that Fininvest admits having paid to tax inspectors, Bossi was able to capitalize on his political vulnerability.

Berlusconi's popularity had already begun to crumble before the announcement. He has not been able to follow through on many campaign promises, which included creating 1 million jobs. Party membership in Forza Italia has fallen to 300,000, less than half its membership in June.

Bossi insisted Wednesday that ``[Berlusconi's] government was a complete failure because it did not accomplish anything. Berlusconi got involved in politics to protect his personal entrepreneurial interests.''

In trying to unseat Berlusconi, the Northern League leader is hoping to buttress his own political interests. ``Bossi understood that his party and Berlusconi's party have the same electorate,'' explains political analyst Sergio Romano, former Italian ambassador to NATO and to Moscow.

The popular survive

``Only one of them can survive,'' he adds. ``This is why, without any scruples, Bossi has launched an attack on his former ally at a time when he thought Berlusconi was most vulnerable.''

But the vociferous Bossi may have buried his own prospects in the process.

A poll carried out Wednesday by the CIRM Institute, Italy's most important polling group, reported that 60 percent of the people who voted for the Northern League in March now feel betrayed by Bossi. CIRM Director Nicola Piepoli says, ``If we went to the voting booths now, the right [Forza Italia and the National Alliance] will certainly win.''

For this reason, Bossi and the opposition parties favor waiting before elections are held.

Giorgio Galli, a professor of political history at the University of Milan, would like to see an interim period before elections. ``The ideal solution would be a coalition of all major political parties led by a prestigious personality.... This government alternative could provide a new institutional structure for Italy, one in favor of more regional autonomy and a less bureaucratic centralized power.''

The professor believes that Italy needs the peace and quiet. ``New elections at this time will embitter the clash. Our future will be even more unstable,'' Galli added.

The economy may also benefit from a cooling period. The lira was sent into a tailspin yesterday, hitting record lows against the deutsche mark and slumping badly against the dollar. Attilio Ventura, president of the Milan Stock Exchange hopes that this state of uncertainty will soon come to an end. ``Stability is crucial for us. It allows us to work, and to balance the checkbooks.''

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