Leading Article: The net closes on Berlusconi

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THE CONFLICT between the magistrates and the Berlusconi government is rapidly reaching the point of no return. When Francesco Borrelli, the Milan chief prosecutor, declared that his investigations had reached the pinnacle of politics and business, the implication was clear: Silvio Berlusconi himself is now under threat. The conflict between them first came to a head in July when Mr Berlusconi tried to limit the powers of the magistrates. The resulting public outcry forced him to retreat.

The judicial net appears to be closing around Mr Berlusconi. His brother is under investigation and there are presently seven separate lines of inquiry into his company, Fininvest. The case that now threatens him concerns the TV channel Telepiu, in which Mr Berlusconi holds a 10 per cent share. It is alleged that when Mr Berlusconi was obliged under the anti-trust laws to divest 90 per cent of his stake in the company in 1990, he put those shares in the control of individuals who were in effect acting for him. No one knows what will happen next, but it is possible that Mr Berlusconi will find himself under investigation by the magistrates.

Ever since Mr Berlusconi entered the political ring last January, his behaviour has displayed a disturbingly authoritarian touch. He used his control of television to inflict a devastating defeat on the left in the general election. In the ensuing months he has systematically sought to neutralise key sources of potential opposition or independence. He intervened to influence the choice of the director-general of the Bank of Italy, a matter still unresolved. Not content with controlling half the TV audience through his own channels, he has appointed his political cronies to run RAI, the state television company. But the biggest challenge is undoubtedly the magistrates, not least because they may eventually threaten Mr Berlusconi himself.

The possibility cannot be excluded that Mr Berlusconi will decide to resign if he is placed under investigation. On past form, he may resist such a course. The belligerent response of the government to Mr Borrelli, indeed, suggests precisely that. Such a reaction would not, however, be certain to succeed because his coalition partners, the Northern League and the National Alliance, may not be prepared to go along with it. Any direct confrontation between the Prime Minister and the magistrates would also take place against the background of already nervous and volatile financial markets.

For Italy, the stakes could scarcely be higher. The nature and scale of Mr Berlusconi's election victory has, for the foreseeable future, rendered the opposition parties of the left and centre ineffective. That could mean that if President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro finds himself seeking a new prime minister, the most powerful figure in any government that emerges might well turn out to be Gianfranco Fini, the former leader of the neo- fascist MSI. Italian politics is increasingly coming to resemble a white-knuckle ride.

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