Italians tip toward a tycoon

Despite scandals, far-right allies, Silvio Berlusconi is expected to win Sunday's vote.

Anywhere else in Europe, a government that fosters respectable economic growth, brings down unemployment, and restores health to the public purse might reasonably expect to win reelection.

But in Italy, all the signs are that when voters go to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections, they will cast such considerations aside.

Instead, they will seek salvation from an outmoded political system in the arms of a flamboyant billionaire, Silvio Berlusconi.

That prospect has stirred a chorus of alarm from Italy's European neighbors. Mr. Berlusconi is not only the richest man in the country and owner of its three top commercial TV networks. He is also embroiled in a string of court cases in which he is accused of fraud, tax evasion, and corruption. And he has allied himself both with the party that inherited Benito Mussolini's mantle and a far-right xenophobic movement.

None of this is expected to stop Berlusconi's coalition, the House of Freedoms, from winning on Sunday. The latest opinion polls put him 4 points ahead of his closest opponent, Francesco Rutelli, head of the center-left Olive Tree coalition.

"Italians are profoundly disenchanted" with a tradition of revolving-door governments repeatedly formed by the same political forces that have ruled the country since World War II, says Tana de Zulueta, an Olive Tree senator in danger of losing her seat.

Hopes that the center-left might build a new and more responsive system from the ruins left by corruption scandals in the early 1990s have been "betrayed," she complains.

Berlusconi, meanwhile, "will win because he is perceived as coming from outside politics," predicts Giuliano Ferrara, who was spokesman for the short-lived government that Berlusconi headed in 1994.

"He presents an image of believing what he is saying, which is an impression traditional Italian politicians can no longer convey," adds James Walston, who teaches politics at the American University of Rome.

Nor do Italian voters appear unduly concerned by the persistent allegations against the conservative leader of sleazy business dealing, which led the influential magazine The Economist to declare Berlusconi "unfit to lead Italy."

Berlusconi claims he has been persecuted by leftist judges who launched a Clean Hands campaign against corrupt politicians and businessmen 10 years ago, and he enjoys a certain sympathy for this view among the electorate.

Despite five years of investigations into 10 different cases, prosecutors have not yet managed to send him to jail. "This is a soup that has been simmering too long" for voters to care very much, suggests Franco Pavoncello, dean of John Cabot University in Rome. "It has been stirred so long that everything is confused."

Berlusconi has acknowledged, however, that if he became prime minister he could face clear conflicts between the interests of his sprawling business empire - spanning publishing, TV, banking, and property - and the interests of the country. He has promised to deal with this question within three months of the election - though he has not explained how - and Italians do not see the problem in the same light as others might, say political observers.

Indeed, his wealth and outstanding business success are more of an advantage than an impediment in the eyes of many voters, who "think that Berlusconi will do for them what he did for himself," explains Dr. Walston.

Berlusconi supporters are pinning their hopes on his Reaganesque promises of lower taxes, less red tape, and a full-scale attack on the multifarious influence of the state as a way of injecting new dynamism into the Italian economy. "There is a feeling that the state cannot give you as much as it takes away," says Dr. Pavoncello. "Voters want to get the state off their backs and out of their wallets."

The current ruling coalition of former Communists, social democrats, centrist Catholics, and Greens are too closely identified with the state to inspire confidence that they could carry through economic reforms. They have also tarred themselves with the discredited brush of "politics as usual." When the Olive Tree coalition won the 1996 elections, they promised that Romano Prodi would stay in office for a full five-year term. In fact, internal squabbling brought him down two years later, and a new government was formed by patching together a new coalition, just like many others among the 58 governments that have ruled Italy since 1945. Two-hundred deputies switched sides in various maneuvers during the life of the current parliament.

With all the traditional, establishment parties in the government, Italian voters appear ready to turn to outsiders. "Against the rigidity of the system, there is a real chance for the first time of changing the elite, and that is unprecedented," says Pavoncello.

The outsiders, however, include figures at the fringes of European politics. A prominent member of the House of Freedoms is the National Alliance, the post-fascist party that grew out of dictator Benito Mussolini's party. The alliance is led by Gianfranco Fini, tipped to be deputy prime minister if Berlusconi wins.

Also allied with Berlusconi is the Northern League, headed by radical anti-immigrant firebrand Umberto Bossi. Mr. Bossi's supporters staged an anti-Muslim demonstration last year, during which they poured pig urine over the site of a proposed new mosque so as to desecrate it.

This has led critics, especially abroad, to call Berlusconi a danger to democracy. Leading European newspapers have followed The Economist in warning of the consequences of his expected victory. But most European political leaders have refrained from open criticism, and in the wake of the failure of the European Union's boycott of Austria over the inclusion of Jorg Haider's antiforeigner party in government, the EU is expected to be more cautious.

Nonetheless, "we would be under special observation" if Berlusconi wins on Sunday, says Ms. de Zulueta. "We'll have a political problem of presentability and respectability ... I think we will be in for quite a rocky ride."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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