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Berlusconi faces election trouble in paradise

If Silvio Berlusconi fulfils his dreams, maybe one day all of Italy will look like this. Rows of pleasant suburban blocks of flats in brownish- red, ample lawns and flower beds, children in designer jeans riding tricycles along gleaming concrete pathways and family BMWs parked neatly in underground garages.

Welcome to Milano 3 - a kind of yuppie mini-city built by Mr Berlusconi during his days as a construction magnate in the late 1970s and now home to 10,000 well-to-do members of the Milan commuter belt moulded in his own image.

This is the Berlusconi dream made flesh, bright and pleasant like something out of the floor-polish adverts broadcast on his private television stations. Even the street signs are adorned with the symbol of Mr Berlusconi's Channel Five.

But these days there is trouble even in this secluded paradise. Mr Berlusconi's political party, Forza Italia, is lagging in the campaign for this Sunday's general election, under pressure not only from the centre-left opposition but also from its independent erstwhile partner, the Northern League (still popular around Milan), and its current bosom ally, the reformed neoFascist National Alliance.

Mr Berlusconi himself looks like a man bracing for the worst. "Let's hope, let's really hope," he said at a meeting in central Milan on Tuesday night - a far cry from his usual effusive optimism.

Forza Italia's MP for Milano 3, a bright and energetic education specialist called Valentina Aprea, finds herself battling to keep what is now considered a marginal constituency because of the unglamorous high-rise council blocks and semi-abandoned farmhouses that lurk a few kilometres beyond the town's security gates.

Mrs Aprea is popular locally thanks to a winning personality and two years of hard work in the constituency and in various cultural and educational commissions in Rome. But that may not be enough to get her re-elected.

"The polls put me ahead, but 30 per cent of my electorate is still undecided. In these last few days I'm gunning for the moderate, Catholic vote," she said. "Italy needs a strong centrist party, and I think Silvio Berlusconi is the ideal leader, a true moderate."

Such words capture Forza Italia's big problem, which is that its voters are moderate but that its leader clearly is not, despite strenuous public relations efforts to paint him that way. In fact the party's moderate wing has been squeezed in this election campaign, partly because Mr Berlusconi has succumbed to the growing influence of the National Alliance leader, Gianfranco Fini, and partly because his most moderate senior confidant, Vittorio Dotti, was expelled recently because his girlfriend was spilling sensitive information to the judiciary.

Mrs Aprea is a case in point. Although one of the party's few bright young politicians, as a moderate she has been refused a place on Forza Italia's list for the part of the election decided by proportional representation. If she fails in her constituency she will have no chance to be "rescued" and sent back to Rome.

Partly because of Mr Berlusconi's problems with anti-corruption magistrates and the conflict of interest between his television stations and his political career, he has been slowly squeezed out of the position of political dominance he enjoyed two years ago when he first swept to power.

His Thatcherite, free-marketeering programme has been heavily diluted to meet the needs of the National Alliance, which has wooed voters with promises of plentiful state jobs and welfare benefits. The contradictions within the centre-right alliance have become an electoral liability, with Mr Berlusconi on the one hand promising to reduce the size of the state but on the other saying no jobs will actually be cut.

In the last week, Forza Italia's campaign has become more desperate as the party demonises the opposition as Communists nostalgic for the corrupt old order - a line that worked two years ago when the left was more monolithic but cuts little ice now that it has turned into a broad coalition.

Privately, there is resentment too at the strength of the National Alliance and at Mr Fini's responsibility for provoking an election at a time of weakness for Mr Berlusconi.

The party leader for the Lombardy region, Onofrio Amoluso Battista, said the best Forza Italia could hope for was an inconclusive election result followed by a cross-party pact with the left-wing PDS on constitutional and electoral reform.

If that is true, then Mr Berlusconi is in real trouble. And if he is pushed aside by Mr Fini after the election, that will effectively radicalise the centre-right even further. "Without Berlusconi, Forza Italia is finished," said a member of the party's parliamentary staff in Rome. The end of Forza Italia would leave a recently converted neo-Fascist party as the only credible force on the Italian right - a prospect even Mr Berlusconi's worst enemies would not relish.