Leading Article: Un Ballo in Maschera

THE LOVE of illusion plays a pervasive role in almost all the great works of Italian thought and culture since the Renaissance. It is the serpent in the garden of that remarkably gifted land. Italy's finest political philosophy celebrates deception. The skill of her painters treats realism as a tiresome facade. On the opera set, characters put on masks. They intermingle, exchange roles, politely deceive and betray. It is, after all, tribute to the civilised wisdom of Italian life that the stiletto has usually been preferred to the bludgeon. But the mask remains an essential prop, and never more so than today.

The success of Silvio Berlusconi's fractious alliance in the Italian elections has been hailed in ignorant quarters as a vote against corruption, a rejection of the discredited old system and the prelude to creation of a New Italy certain to astound the world by its prosperity and rectitude. The new set dazzles with its splendour, the leading character appears every inch a merchant prince and the libretto is brilliantly scripted by a man from Saatchi & Saatchi (again). But a fastidious critic is bound to observe that this is not a New Italy of any kind. It is the Old Italy, deceptively triumphant.

Mr Berlusconi made his fortune from Milan real estate in the Seventies, and attached himself to the retinue of the Socialist politician Bettino Craxi. The Berlusconi empire branched into advertising, newspapers, magazines, publishing, financial services, supermarkets and, most important, television. Mr Craxi, meanwhile, became prime minister. During the Eighties he, too, proclaimed a New Italy of reform and good government. For more than a decade, the interests of the two men were synonymous. It was, no doubt, by cruel coincidence alone that Mr Craxi's trial on corruption charges, which he strongly denies, opened yesterday in Milan, even as Mr Berlusconi was quaffing champagne and awaiting the call to become prime minister.

Under the old system, businessmen traded favours with politicians, who functioned as mediators with the mystical apparatus of the state. Under the new system, which all are invited to applaud, that will no longer be necessary. Consider the matter of television. As businessman, Mr Berlusconi controls almost 90 per cent of commercial television with more than 45 per cent of the national audience. As prime minister, he will also enjoy supreme authority over the three state television channels, and will exercise unassailable influence over such regulatory bodies as exist.

Consider the Italian economy. As businessman, Mr Berlusconi presides over a conglomerate laden with massive debts, whose interests can be served only by heavy consumer spending, low interest rates and debt-reducing inflation. Yet prime minister Berlusconi will be supposed to cut inflation, reduce taxes, open the economy to free- market competition and curb the state's powers. Mr Berlusconi insists that no conflict of interest will exist, a statement best interpreted in the light of that historical affinity for illusion. Hardworking Italians, who save much more of their incomes than do the British, may yet have cause to be thankful for the independent statutes of the Bank of Italy.

The potential for instability of a more serious kind is provided in double measure by the decline of the Italian left and the resurgence of the neo-fascists. Only a few months ago, the renamed Communists were set to bring their philosophy of clean and efficient administration, so successful in central Italy, to the business of central government. Mr Berlusconi's campaign left them in shreds. As in 1947, their dreams are scattered to the winds. Their leader, Achille Occhetto, is destined to be remembered only as the Neil Kinnock of Italian politics.

As for the heirs of Mussolini, they come Armani-clad these days. But while the smooth rhetoric of the neo-fascist leadership belies its heritage, a few thugs are always on hand to remind Italians of what lurks around the corner. It is a cause for serious concern that members of this party could join a cabinet in Rome for the first time since the fall of the Duce in 1943.

The other component of Mr Berlusconi's alliance, the Northern League, may come to hold the balance of influence in the days ahead. Crude, chauvinist and raucous the League may sometimes be, but its leader, Umberto Bossi, is correct to say that Mr Berlusconi is part of the old regime, and wise to insist that his party will not enter government with the neo-fascists. But Mr Berlusconi, using his power in television, outflanked Mr Bossi before, and may do so again.

So where does this leave the Italian reformers, the campaigning newspapers, the zealous magistrates, the innovative businessmen, the prudent servants of the state whose labours in the transitional government of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi have done their country so much good? It is theirs to reflect upon the simple truth that in their millions Italians voted for Mr Berlusconi, the neo-fascists and the League, just as they voted consistently during almost five decades for the discredited parties of the old regime. The majority of individual voters have made their choice.

After this astonishing election, Italy remains a disunited place. In the north, the hankering for autonomy continues among taxpayers weary of languid and spendthrift government. In the centre, the left maintains its moderate local government. South of Rome extends the fiefdom of Christian Democracy, now mixed up with the far right and a few forlorn reformers.

The broader divide in Italian political life persists. It lies between inertia and action, between people who want a modern European democracy and those who cling to patronage and the relics of feudalism. It is the contest between the hard- headed realism that lies at the heart of Machiavelli and that seductive appeal of illusion.