Fairy-tale ends for Berlusconi

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

When Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy last year, he said he felt "anointed by the Lord" and the bearer of a divine mission. Yesterday, having clamorously failed to unseat his successor, Lamberto Dini, in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, he was casting himself in a rather humbler light.

"I feel like Snow White in a world without fairy-tales," he said, clearly feeling the pinch of humiliation as a key ally in his push to topple the government, the far-left Rifondazione Comunista, pulled out at the last moment. "The rules of business don't seem to apply to politics ... Once upon a time Communists were serious people."

This was more than uncomfortable bleating from a wounded leader. Among Mr Berlusconi's colleagues in his patchwork conservative coalition, the Freedom Alliance, the talk was openly of whether this no-confidence vote was one blunder too many, and whether the time had come to find someone else to lead the Italian centre-right.

"I get the impression that another candidate has emerged in the last few days," one of Mr Berlusconi's newer allies, the Christian Democrat leader Rocco Buttiglione, said with an enigmatic smile. Although he did not say so in as many words, Mr Buttiglione and, indeed, much of the Christian Democrat component in the Freedom Alliance, have been pushing to nominate the former head of state, Francesco Cossiga, as their prime ministerial candidate.

A man wholly identified with the old political order, Mr Cossiga is, frankly, an unlikely choice. But the threat to Mr Berlusconi's authority is very real, and is likely to intensify once a timetable is established for Italy's much-heralded next general election. After all, this is a man who promised the earth when he spectacularly entered politics at the beginning of last year, but whose record has proved him to be far more talk than action.

The coalition with which Mr Berlusconi won the March 1994 general elections fell apart after seven turbulent months in which he failed to deliver on any of his key campaign promises. Since his resignation he has ceaselessly pressed for fresh elections, but failed to obtain them. He has tried to woo both Mr Dini and the popular former anti-corruption magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro, into his political movement, but managed only to alienate them.

And now, starting in January, his trial on charges of corruption relating to his Fininvest business empire risks turning him into a serious electoral liability. His chief ally, the leader of the former neo-Fascist National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, has talked openly about reconsidering Mr Berlusconi's position, stopping short only of the obvious consequence - nominating himself in his place.

Mr Berlusconi is likely to prove a hard man to dislodge, however. Not only does he have charisma, populist appeal and the allegiance of scores of former business associates turned politicians, but he also has the one weapon which makes him the envy of the entire political spectrum: his three private television stations.

One possibility is that Mr Berlusconi takes a back seat, acting as political godfather to the centre-right but allowing someone else to run for prime minister. But even that will take some persuading, given Mr Berlusconi's hard-bitten ambition and his clear relish at being the centre of attention.

"You say the Alliance needs a new manager?" he said on Thursday night in response to a joke about the soccer team he owns, AC Milan. "Well I didn't score too many victories in my first year at Milan, but once I started winning I didn't stop."

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