Berlusconi fears choice of 'idiot'to stave off Italian election

Despite a corruption conviction and more trials ahead, and suspicion in Europe for hanging on to a media empire while in politics, conservative opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi insists that Italians will put him back into power - if the left will let them vote.

Berlusconi, who was premier for seven months in 1994, said he feared that, following the resignation a day earlier of former Communist Premier Massimo D'Alema, the out-going centre-left coalition will band together behind the latest "useful idiot" - Berlusconi didn't say which one - to avoid early elections.

Elections must be held by spring 2001. President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who spent the day sounding out political leaders for any consensus on a new premier, can call for balloting immediately if he feels another, revamped centre-left coalition can't muster a majority that could survive through Parliament's last year.

The government crisis was triggered by a stunning victory on Sunday by Berlusconi and his right-wing allies in regional elections.

A leader of a small party in D'Alema's coalition, Irene Pivetti, said there was "99 per cent" probability that centre-left leaders would agree on Treasury Minister Giuliano Amato as next premier.

"I fear there won't be a vote until 2001," Berlusconi said, claiming his alliance - which ranges from former neo-fascists to the autonomy-seeking Northern League - would capture some 60 per cent of the vote if a general election were held immediately.

Berlusconi's alliance captured 52 per cent of the regional vote on Sunday, thanks in part to a campaign marriage with Umberto Bossi, the volatile regional leader who until recently was advocating independence for the affluent, industrialized north.

It was Bossi's pullout from Berlusconi's coalition in 1994 that toppled that government.

In an interview, the 63-year-old media magnate sought to reassure Italians that he could survive any replay of Bossi's coalition pullout. Bossi's Northern League "now represents only about 10 per cent of the coalition's votes, so I can govern without them," Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi has distanced himself from Bossi's practically xenophobic immigrant stance even while insisting that "Bossi isn't Haider," a reference to Joerg Haider, the far-right Austrian leader.

Berlusconi insisted that regulated, legal immigration would be good for Italy with its low birth rate.

The billionaire Berlusconi said that he has helped some 100 Albanians over the years find such jobs in Italy as guards for his friends' villas.

Bound to come up in any national campaign are the cases against Berlusconi brought by Milan's "Clean Hands" prosecutors, whom he denounced as the tools of the left.

Found guilty in three of four trials, Berlusconi has seen two of those convictions thrown out on appeal, with still another level of appeals left. Other cases, one of them for corruption, are pending.

Charges against him ranged from illegal financing of what was the Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi, to bribing tax police officials examining the books of his Fininvest business empire.

"I'm absolutely sure I'll have acquittals in all cases," Berlusconi said. "There is no proof of any kind, and the people know that."

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