Ciao, Signor Berlusconi?

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The brave new world of Silvio Berlusconi lasted just seven months. In this respect his government resembled those of the old regime. This was not how it was supposed to be. Mr Berlusconi promised a break with the past, an Italian miracle. But he has always been a deeply ambiguous figure: a quintessential product of the old system who sought to become the architect of the new.

But it would be wrong to conclude that the present political instability is the same as that of the past. Whatever the external appearances, the old regime was remarkably stable. The new one is not. New movements rise and fall with extraordinary speed. Volatility and instability reign. Revolutions have a voracious appetite for consuming their own children. Forza Italia itself is now threatened. But it would be wrong to start writing Mr Berlusconi's epitaph just yet.

The immediate cause of the fall of his government was the decision of the Northern League to withdraw its support. For the moment Mr Berlusconi remains in office as caretaker prime minister. Beyond that, he and his closest ally, Gianfranco Fini of the National Alliance, have demanded an immediate general election. That is unlikely to happen. It is opposed by both President Scalfaro and the opposition parties, all of which would prefer a phase of institutional government.

It may be that, in the meantime, Mr Berlusconi will find himself marginalised. Yesterday his brother was sentenced to seven months in jail for corruption. Silvio himself is under formal investigation. The fall of his government may have the effect of bursting the bubble of success which has been so crucial to his appeal.

But he should not be underestimated. He is playing for high stakes. The very future of his business empire may be intimately bound up with his political survival. During his premiership, he constantly upped the ante, attacking not only the left-wing opposition and now Umberto Bossi, but also the magistrates, accusing them of seeking to undermine the government. Other Berlusconi targets included the Bank of Italy and the state television network, Rai. He displays nascent authoritarian tendencies.

The election which is likely to follow, though not for a few months yet, is likely to be a torrid affair. Italian politics has rapidly polarised during Berlusconi's premiership. With the media magnate now fighting for his life, those divisions are likelyto grow more acute.

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