Italian Election: Victory poses new test for divided right

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI, the controversial multi-millionaire television and publishing mogul who went into politics only three months ago, last night took the first steps towards forming a government after his sensational victory in the Italian elections at the head of a right-wing alliance.

Mr Berlusconi's brand new Forza Italia movement, the federalist Northern League and the neo-Fascist- dominated National Alliance (AN) together won an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies and were the biggest bloc in the Senate.

But the task of welding the three very different and fractious parties together into a viable government already promised to be extremely difficult. Gianfranco Fini, the AN leader, said last night that Mr Berlusconi must have the task of forming the new government while Umberto Bossi, who has flatly ruled out Mr Berlusconi as prime minister, demanded that the League lead the government. His candidate for prime minister is Roberto Maroni, the League's former floor leader in the Chamber of Deputies.

Mr Bossi's first reaction had been to refuse to enter any government with the 'Fascists'. He later toned down his remarks but insisted on Italy being turned into a federation and on a Thatcherite, free-market economic policy, both of which are anathema to the nationalistic AN, whose economic and social policies have strong left-wing traits. In fact the right-wing alliance adds up, as Achille Occhetto, the leader of the defeated left remarked acidly, 'arithmetically but not politically'.

It is likely that Mr Bossi is in fact setting the highest possible price for the League's entry into government. The right cannot rule without it, but the League would hardly want to take on the responsibility of refusing to give the country a government. Mr Fini, although tough towards the League, is also much less polemical. For the neo-Fascists, merely belonging to a government after half a century in the political wilderness is an achievement that until recently was beyond their wildest imagination.

Mr Berlusconi cancelled a planned press conference while he contacted figures on the right and tried to keep the alliance - which had really only been an electoral pact - together. Earlier he had said 'I hope to take on responsibility for government. I hope and believe that the Alliance for Liberty (the right- wing alliance) will reach - indeed it must reach - an agreement. Victory will unite.' Any refusal by the Northern League to join the government would be 'high treason towards the electorate'.

President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro declared the new parliament should 'just give the country political stability'. Jobs and the defence of the lira must be the next government's absolute priority. The actual timing of the next moves was not clear, but from remarks by the three leaders it looked as if efforts to form a coalition would take several days at least.

The results were a victory for the Milanese tycoon beyond all the immense successes of his remarkable career. Declaring that he must save Italy from the 'Communists', he stepped in and rallied the fragmented right around him, saving it from the expected beating at the hands of the better-organised left.

He employed all the resources at his disposal to get it: his executives set up his network of over 10,000 Forza Italia clubs around the country, his pollsters identified what the public wanted, his admen ran a slick advertising campaign on his three television networks - which reach half the Italian viewers - and helped him convey the image of a successful, new, competent leader who could transform the country and everyone's lives.

There was an artificial quality to his campaign, but no matter. It was totally different from anything Italians had seen before and it worked. Mr Berlusconi's own friendship with the disgraced prime minister Bettino Craxi, his links with the old regime, his membership of the sinister P2 masonic conspiracy, investigations into alleged corruption and account-fiddling in his empire and his companies' massive debts were clearly no disadvantage.

But now Mr Berlusconi has to fulfil his electoral promise of achieving a 'new Italian miracle', of cutting taxes, creating a million jobs, cutting the deficit and raising pensions. At the same time he has to reconcile his warring partners and their diametrically opposed demands. Another question mark is his strength in the Senate, where the left, the centre and the assorted non-aligned parties could in theory join forces to defeat him.

It was a sad day for the Italian centre, almost crushed in the clash between the left and right, and particularly sad for Mario Segni, the electoral reformer whose referendums had helped to topple the corrupt old regime and forced a change in the predominantly first-past-the- post system. His Pact for Italy won only 4.6 per cent of the vote and he himself was defeated in his own Sardinian constituency, although he will doubtless return to parliament in a proportionally elected seat. His allies, the Popular Party (former Christian Democrats), led by Mino Martinazzoli, did better, with more than 11 per cent.