Italian tycoon returns as premier

Nearly complete results show Silvio Berlusconi's coalition as winner in parliamentary vote.

Rightwing billionaire Silvio Berlusconi emerged Monday as the victor in Italian parliamentary elections with a safe majority, opening up the possibility of unaccustomed political stability for a new conservative government.

Though the last of the ballots were still being counted, nearly complete returns appeared to assure Mr. Berlusconi's House of Freedoms coalition a win, and the currently ruling coalition conceded defeat.

Voters turned out in large numbers Sunday to throw the bulk of their support behind the two major coalitions on the center-right and center-left, spurning most of the skittish smaller parties which have unsettled the Italian political system for many years.

"We are emerging from a dramatic decade, and Italians are trying to construct a new political schema," says Giuliano Ferrara, a Berlusconi adviser.

"Things are changing, and it's voter-driven," says Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor of politics at Florence University. "This is a new ballgame."

Internationally, the new prime minister will have to move cautiously as he tries to allay doubts about his conflicts of interest, his legal travails, and the rightist nature of his political coalition partners.

Having run as a conservative anti-establishment outsider, he will not fit naturally into the group of Social Democrat politicians who run all Western European countries except Spain and Austria.

"There will be some hesitation and reticence among some political leaders because he is not part of the club," says Sergio Romano, the leading Italian commentator on foreign affairs. "Berlusconi had better be aware of this and be careful."

But few politicians or analysts here expect the European Union to impose the sort of diplomatic boycott on Rome that it did on Vienna last year, in response to the inclusion of a far-right party led by Jorg Haider in the Austrian government. "Europe will have to take Italy's decision for what it is," says Dr. Romano.

The elections were a clear personal victory for Berlusconi himself. The bad-tempered campaign had become virtually a referendum on his character, in light of his vast media empire (including the three largest commercial TV stations) and his protracted legal entanglement in allegations of tax evasion, bribery, and false accounting.

Italians shrugged off such concerns, giving more weight to the candidate's pledges to cut taxes, crack down on crime, and deal more harshly with illegal immigrants.

Berlusconi's coalition won a majority in the Senate, and Interior Ministry figures indicated that it would also win comfortably in the Chamber of Deputies. Voters gave Berlusconi's own political party, Forza Italia (Go, Italy) about 30 percent of the vote, according to poll projections, up from 20.6 percent at the last parliamentary elections in 1996. This is expected to give him added strength in imposing discipline on his two major coalition allies, the National Alliance, which Gianfranco Fini has built from the remains of Benito Mussolini's party, and the anti-foreigner Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi.

Berlusconi's first government, in 1994, fell after only seven months when Mr. Bossi deserted him, but the Northern League's poor performance on Sunday, polling less than half the votes it won in the last parliamentary elections, is likely to cramp Bossi's style and make him think twice before bolting the alliance again.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi is expected to formally ask Berlusconi to form a government with a parliamentary majority in about three weeks, after the new deputies and senators have been sworn in.

"This will be a strong government with space for maneuver," predicts Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor and dean of John Cabot University in Rome.

Berlusconi is likely to move quickly to launch public-works projects such as new roads to reinforce Italy's infrastructure, and he has promised to cut taxes dramatically as well, in a bid modeled on Ronald Reagan's policies designed to spur economic growth.

Trade unions are likely to balk at some of Berlusconi's policies, observers say. If the new government keeps its campaign pledge to liberalize labor laws, making it easier for employers to lay off workers, "he will face tremendous opposition from the unions, and there will be a resurgence of social unrest," Dr. Pavoncello predicts.

On other issues, the next government is expected to seek bipartisan support, for example over reforms to the Constitution and electoral system, which are widely seen as key to modernizing the political system and boosting Italy properly into the major league of European players.

"To be heard and to have influence in European and international circles, you have to appear to your partners as the recognized leader of your country, likely to be back at the next meetings for four or five years," Romano points out. Until fundamental laws have been reformed, "nothing can guarantee that in Italy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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