He was arrested as Italian newspapers carried an opinion poll indicating that Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing group, Forza Italia, was now the biggest party in Italy and that the four right-wing parties together were not far off an absolute majority. In theory he would seem well placed to become Italy's next prime minister, but there are still six weeks to the elections and many unknowns - including the effect of his brother's arrest.
Mr Berlusconi has reached an electoral deal with the Northern League whereby they will field common candidates and campaign under a unified symbol in the north. Seventy-five per cent of the candidates, however, will be League people, the rest Forza Italia and minor allies. He is also working on some agreement with the National Alliance (AN), the former neo-fascists, in the south. But the chances of a triangular alliance between the three are remote: the federalist League and the nationalist AN are at daggers drawn.
On the left, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the former Communists, has formed an alliance with seven groups, ranging from the hardline Rifondazione Comunista to the Greens and centre-left Democratic Alliance. In the middle, the electoral reformer Mario Segni has formed a difficult partnership with the Popular Party, the reformed rump of the discredited former Christian Democrats.
The latest poll, by the CIRM institute, had Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia at 24 per cent, the Northern League down somewhat to 10 per cent, the National Alliance at 10 per cent and the Christian Democratic Centre, a right-wing splinter of the Christian Democrats, at 4 per cent, which together gave them 48 per cent. The left, which had looked by far the strongest camp until the right began to unite, jointly had 35 per cent - 19 per cent for the PDS and 15 per cent for the rest. The centre together polled 17 per cent.
Another poll, by the Directa institute, found that more than two-thirds of the voters were still uncertain how to vote. It said: 'In the last 15 years (we have) never recorded such a high level of indecision at little more than a month from the vote.'
The apparent strength of Forza Italia could be due to Mr Berlusconi's launch in a spectacular American-style convention last Sunday and his massive publicity campaign, particularly on his three television channels. This could change after 24 February, when a law comes into force allotting air time fairly between the parties.
Paolo Berlusconi took possession of the Berlusconi interests in 1992, along with the newspaper Il Giornale which his brother had to relinquish in order to keep his television channels. In the mid-Eighties, however, when the alleged bribery took place, they belonged to Silvio. He has not been mentioned in any corruption case but his opponents argue that he could not have built up his massive television, supermarket, insurance and publishing empire without shady deals.
The Berlusconi camp smelt a plot. Roberto Maroni, floor leader of the Northern League, suggested that the left was behind it. 'I say there is someone, a great stage-manager, who is creating the conditions so that the magistrates will strike.' Davide Visani, head of the PDS secretariat, said light was being thrown 'on the fact that Berlusconi's fortunes were not born on the free market but in the complicity between business and politics'.Reuse content