Silvio Berlusconi: television, power and patrimony, by Paul Ginsborg, and Berlusconi's Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power, by David Lane

A catalogue of thuggery and cronyism
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The Independent Culture

Italy's vocation for political turmoil is matched by the sluggishness of its courts: cases continue for months or years; charges are annulled to cut the backlog; sentences only take effect after appeal, by which time the original charge may have expired under the statute of limitations.

Italy's vocation for political turmoil is matched by the sluggishness of its courts: cases continue for months or years; charges are annulled to cut the backlog; sentences only take effect after appeal, by which time the original charge may have expired under the statute of limitations.

Under another system, the Italian prime minister might now be a convicted criminal. Silvio Berlusconi has been found guilty of corruption and false accounting (verdicts reversed on appeal) and illegally financing Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party (charge expired during appeal). A conviction for perjury was annulled. An associate was jailed for bribing a judge; another was convicted for extortion and faces charges of Mafia involvement.

For Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, this judicial onslaught is a Communist conspiracy to deprive the Italian people of their chosen leader. This allegation intimidates Berlusconi's critics. Since Forza Italia and its allies came to power in May 2001, a more direct - and dangerous - approach has become available. A series of measures have been passed that hamper magistrates investigating false accounting, cases using Mafia informers, and those involving high-ranking politicians.

These books present two different, but equally damning, portraits of Berlusconi. David Lane writes for The Economist, which Berlusconi sued for libel after it suggested he was unfit to lead Italy. Berlusconi's Shadow is a withering indictment of crony capitalism, executive thuggery and government incompetence.

Ginsborg, a leading historian and opponent of Berlusconi, focuses on the paradoxes of his career. His television channels are notoriously lightweight: the only political outlook they foster is apathy. But this can be a political force. Polls suggest Forza Italia supporters are cynical about politicians - a category that excludes Berlusconi. In reality, Berlusconi owes his television empire to Craxi, one of the most discredited representatives of Italy's old political class.

For Lane, Berlusconi is a shrewd but amoral businessman who entered politics to safeguard his interests and is now out of his depth. To Ginsborg, Berlusconi's combination of anti-political populism and media power makes him a real threat to democracy.

The test will come in the 2006 elections. Italy's governing coalition looks fragile; the ex-Fascists of Alleanza Nazionale are bizarrely emerging as standard-bearers of principled conservatism. But neither the strength of Forza Italia nor Berlusconi's will to power should be underestimated. With the left in long-term disarray, and court cases still hanging over the prime minister, Italy faces several more years of political instability.

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