The Golden Boy gets stuck with feet of clay: Silvio Berlusconi has misjudged the national mood on political graft, Fiona Leney in Rome reports

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The Independent Online
IF, as the cliche goes, a week is a long time in British politics, the torrid summer heat of Rome has precipitated an even speedier transformation in the fortunes of Silvio Berlusconi, the man who only three months ago appeared to have brought the Midas touch to politics.

It is hard to believe that the shrewd operator who won a landslide victory then by using market research to find out what the public wanted, and offering it to them packaged to perfection, could have so badly misread the national mood last week. The theory most in vogue among political commentators is that the media tycoon is finding it difficult to lay aside the autocratic instincts of the company chairman and chief executive in favour of the traditional softly- softly consensus approach necessary to run both the coalition government and the country. Whatever the case, his miscalculation over the strength of public support for the anti-corruption magistrates that have been purging the top echelons of Italian public life has suddenly landed the golden boy with feet of clay.

There were reasons to believe that the Prime Minister might have been able to get away with his challenge to the judiciary. Observers had pointed out for some time that the Italians appeared to be losing interest in the seemingly endless saga of greed and corruption exposed by the tangentopoli investigations. The outcome of the elections themselves signalled a desire to get away from the old parties of the past and start afresh with political unknowns.

Mr Berlusconi was apparently encouraged by the findings of opinion polls which not only backed this theory but suggested that his popularity had grown steadily since his election.

When the idea of reviewing the power of the judiciary was first floated, it caused few ripples in the political pond. His coalition partners, Gianfranco Fini, of the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance, and Umberto Bossi, of the Northern League, both endorsed the decree originally, despite their later protestations when it became clear how desperately unpopular it was. Even the left-wing opposition was only mildly critical at the time.

The uncomfortable truth is that Italy's arcane laws governing detention without trial are ripe for reform. Horror stories abound of suspects languishing in over-crowded, rat-infested cells for years before even standing trial.

Where Mr Berlusconi appears to have miscalculated so badly, either through inexperience or arrogance, was in his timing and his modus operandi: the Milan magistrates who resigned were investigating the Prime Minister's Fininvest business empire as part of their corruption inquiries. The favourite Italian pastime of dietrologia, or constructing conspiracy theories, has been well fed by the Prime Minister's intervention as one of his most trusted lieutenants in Fininvest, Marcello Dell'Utri, is mounting a legal challenge to an order for his arrest in connection with the investigations.

Even right-wing newspapers sympathetic to the government question Mr Berlusconi's method. The issuing of a decree, temporarily by-passing parliament, is normally reserved for urgent anti-terrorist measures. Why the hurry over an issue not previously at the top of the government's agenda, they ask. The result has been a huge embarrassment to all the governing parties: it seems probable that more than 1,000 suspects released from jail last weekend will have to be rounded up and jailed again. The Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni of the Northern League, has emerged from the burlesque as either a liar or a political incompetent after claiming that he was tricked by his government colleagues into signing the decree. The Prime Minister has been shown to be both less astute and less in tune with the mood of the country than he appeared.