Leading Article: Old Italy in a new government

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The Independent Online
It is hard not to be alarmed by events in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi has just been asked to form a government. After two years of convulsions that were supposed to purify the political establishment and expose its corporate cronies, the country is to be governed by a man with intimate links to that same establishment and hands that may be little cleaner than those of many who have fallen. Scarcely anyone believes that Mr Berlusconi could have built up his vast empire without playing by the old rules, and he has, predictably, been before a magistrate to answer questions about bribery.

He is, moreover, corporatism incarnate, his commercial interests intertwined with political ones, especially in the media. He owns half the country's television stations and is now about to take control of the state sector. Heavily indebted, he will also command the state banks to which he owes money. If, in the early stages of renewal, Italian voters seemed anxious to break or weaken the links between politics and business, they have done the opposite with a vengeance.

More worrying still, neo-fascists are now entering the government of an important European country. One of them recently called for the return of Adriatic territory lost to Yugoslavia after the Second World War. Even a non-fascist member of the new establishment, Irene Pivetti, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, has praised Mussolini and made anti-Semitic remarks. This is not what most people mean by democratic renewal.

If a large question mark hangs over the government, a multitude of smaller ones cluster over members of the new parliament. There has been a massive influx of new faces, mostly young by political standards and from industry and the professions rather than the old party machines. They should introduce zest, individuality and valuable experience from the real world, but they are also untested, unpredictable and possibly too beholden to the alliances that brought them their votes.

There is, however, no point in allowing alarm to get ahead of events. Italy has proved itself a resilient country in the past, able to survive incompetent governments, luxuriant jungles of corruption and a hugely overweight bureaucracy. It may survive the shocks that it has brought on itself rather better than the outside world expects. It must, at any rate, be given a fair chance. Mr Berlusconi is a man of talent. If he puts that talent to the service of his country rather than his own interests - and that is the criterion by which he will first be judged - he could bring about reforms that are badly needed.

His government will also be worth watching as a test-bed for trends that are visible - if on a less dramatic scale - in other countries. The rejection of decaying party machines, the rise of rootless new movements, and the sudden appearance of new faces from outside politics reflect shifting currents in Western democracies that are not unique to Italy. They have a message for us all.