'Clean hands' close in on Berlusconi

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The Independent Online
THE STAKES were raised significantly yesterday in the political poker game between Italy's anti- corruption judges and the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Police raided the Milan headquarters of the tycoon's Fininvest business empire, less than 24 hours after a confrontation between the head of the 'clean hands' team and the government.

Far from lowering its profile, the team vigorously pursued inquiries into alleged bribes paid by Telepiu, a pay-television channel partly owned by Fininvest. Many observers believe the judges are close to a final confrontation with the Prime Minister (as hinted earlier this week in a controversial newspaper interview given by the team leader, Judge Francesco Saverio Borrelli). Although Fininvest's premises have been raided before, yesterday's move may suggest investigators are close to gathering conclusive evidence.

Alternatively, they may be racing against time because they believe the government will find

a way to curb their powers.

Adding to Mr Berlusconi's troubles yesterday was an opinion poll that for the first time showed him trailing in the popularity stakes behind his suave neo-Fascist ally in government, Gianfranco Fini. The poll, for L'Espresso magazine, showed that 35 per cent would prefer Mr Fini, 42, as leader of a centre-right grouping to Mr Berlusconi. For Mr Berlusconi, who built his political campaign on charisma and whose hold on power is based on his popularity, the findings are worrying. They suggest he is right to be wary of the shrewd Mr Fini, who has gone out of his way to cultivate good relations with the Milan judiciary, realising just how popular its members are with the public.

The beginning of Mr Berlusconi's political troubles - and slide in the opinion polls - can be traced back to July, when he first took on the 'clean hands' team. The Prime Minister was forced into a humiliating U-turn over plans to curb the judges' powers of investigation after a furious public outcry. His timing did not help - only weeks before the judges had announced new developments linking Fininvest managers to their corruption enquiries.

The battle over the activities of Mr Berlusconi's pounds 4bn business empire erupted into open warfare again this week with Mr Borrelli's remarks - although the judge back-tracked - saying that there was no imminent prospect of Mr Berlusconi being drawn into the investigation. MPs close to the Prime Minister were baying for blood. Subsequent threats to prosecute Mr Borrelli have drawn fire from all sides, not least from Mr Berlusconi's own coalition allies, the federalist Northern League and Mr Fini's National Alliance.

In Milan yesterday, the other members of the team, including the prosecutor, Antonio di Pietro, backed Mr Borrelli to the hilt.