Why the Forza is no longer with him

The future of Silvio Berlusconi's government is hanging in the balance, but he has only himself to blame, argues Wolfgang Achtner Endless bickering has eroded confidence in his ability to govern He has squandered a huge amount of political capital in such a short time
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Eight months after he swept to power on a ticket of clean government and Italian-style Thatcherism, the end is in sight for Silvio Berlusconi and his centre-right coalition.

In recent weeks the prime minister has waged an aggressive television campaign to muster support, insisting that any government other than one run by himself would be tantamount to defrauding the voters of their right to choose. The current crisis, though, was provoked by none other than Berlusconi himself. He decided to call a vote of confidence in his government after the Northern League, which controls 105 of the coalition's 366 seats in the 630-member Chamber of Deputies, sided with the opposition in parliament to set up a commission to review Italy's broadcasting laws. This was the last straw for the prime minister. The endless bickering with the Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, has eroded confidence in his ability to govern, at home and abroad.

The showdown in parliament was taking place yesterday within days of next year's budget being approved. This was originally supposed to be a showcase for the Berlusconi government's economic reforms, yet it turned out to be one of the most convincing examples of Berlusconi's inability to deal with Italy's problems. The budget aims to cut 48 trillion lire from the 1995 deficit, and its passage was supposed to demonstrate that some attempt was being made to control Italy's budget deficit. But the effort was greatly frustrated when the reform of the pension system, the single largest current spending item in the budget, was postponed to prevent a general strike this month.

Finally last week, Lamberto Dini, the treasury minister, was forced to admit that additional measures, including raising taxes, would be necessary to bridge a gap of some 28,000bn lire, even though during the election campaign Berlusconi had vowed to lower taxes.

In a letter sent to the Italian government and released by the treasury last week, the International Monetary Fund expressed its concerns about the financial package. Its report stated, "The budget is perplexing because it is based on temporary measures of an uncertain outcome", and called for tough measures to contain the budget deficit at levels prescribed in the 1995 budget.

Echoing the IMF's concerns, the European Commission's annual report warned that Italy would not be among the majority of European Union nations that are likely to be ready for phase three of monetary union by the 1997 deadline. The US brokerage firm Merrill Lynch told its clients that, given "the extraordinarily high level of political risk, we do not advise a strong involvement in the Italian market at this time". And in Milan, various financial experts have voiced their concerns over the uncertainty of the political scene, saying that the only way to restore the confidence of the markets would be for Berlusconi to step down.

Italian financial experts seem to believe that, in the event of Berlusconi's downfall, the formation of a so-called institutional government might provide a solution. In this case, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro could pick the Speaker of the House, IrenePivetti, or of the Senate, Carlo Scognamiglio, or even a non-political figure. Such a leader would be expected to form a broad-based government with a brief to complete electoral reform and call early elections.

Silvio Berlusconi and his supporters, most notably Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the neo-fascist National Alliance, insist that any government headed by someone other than Berlusconi himself and not including Forza Italia and the National Alliance wouldbe a betrayal of the choice expressed by voters on 27 March. They have derisively dubbed any such government depending on the League's support a ribaltone, "a flip-flop", insisting that to resort to such a solution to the current crisis would amount to nothing less than a coup d'etat.

Eugenio Scalfari, the editor of La Repubblica and one of Berlusconi's most outspoken critics, has labelled such talk nonsense. Scalfari has pointed out that it was the current government that had benefited from a series of flip-flops. In fact, Scalfari insisted, the biggest flip-flop took place when Umberto Bossi joined the government coalition after the elections, even though he had sworn during the campaign that the League would never join forces with the neo-fascists.

Paolo Mieli, the editor of the Corriere della Sera, though, seemed to agree with Berlusconi. "You cannot have a situation in which the losers take the winners' place in government," he said. But, Mieli pointed out, Silvio Berlusconi could only blame himself for his troubles. After the March elections, he noted, Berlusconi had done nothing to resolve the conflict of interest between his role as prime minister and his ownership of the Fininvest conglomerate and instead he waged war against the state broadcasting organisation, Rai, against the investigating magistrates, the Bank of Italy and the country's other institutions.

In what amounted to an epitaph for Berlusconi's government, Mieli wrote: "If only he had behaved as the prime minister of all the Italians, if, already last spring, he'd kept his promises to carry out economic reforms before doing anything else, if he had been severe with all those ministers and members of his majority who seemed preoccupied only with raising the political temperature, if he had adopted an Anglo-Saxon style towards the opposition - if he'd done these simple things, his adventure would n ot be approaching its end so ingloriously."

There was another component to this crisis, though: the resignation two weeks ago of Italy's star anti-corruption magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro. Here was a tragic irony, since Mr Berlusconi's own Forza Italia movement swept into the vacuum left by Italy's old ruling parties that had themselves been swept away by the anti-corruption investigations.

It must be said that many of Silvio Berlusconi's critics predicted a conflict between himself and the judiciary. From the start, the prime minister's attempts to use his position to block the magistrates investigating his past as a businessman seemed to prove the critics right. One of his first public moves, immediately after he had been designated to form a new government, had been to offer the post of justice minister to Di Pietro, a move his critics saw as an attempt to interfere with the investigations.

A few weeks later, Berlusconi tried to quash the investigations, issuing a decree banning preventive detention in corruption cases. A threat by Di Pietro and his colleagues to resign prompted huge public rage and the prime minister was forced to withdrawthe decree.

Shortly afterwards Fininvest officials admitted paying bribes totalling $210,000 to finance inspectors in return for favourable tax treatment for three Fininvest companies. The prime minister insisted that the object of the investigation, his brother Paolo, was a victim of extortion and that he himself had no knowledge of the bribes.

For months, Berlusconi accused the magistrates of working on behalf of the opposition. In what was widely seen as an undisguised attempt to put pressure on the Milan magistrates, Berlusconi ordered a ministerial inquiry into their activities. Commentato r s on Berlusconi's television channels attacked the magistrates every day, and one of them repeatedly called Di Pietro an assassin with blood on his hands.

Last month Berlusconi received formal notice that he himself was under investigation, in connection with the bribes and another scandal involving the ownership of Telepiu', a pay-per-view TV channel partly owned by Fininvest. According to various reports, Berlusconi allegedly used a series of dummy partners to control more than the 10 per cent of the company he was entitled to by law, for which he could stand to lose the three networks already owned.

The prime minister warned the magistrates that he would consider any attempt to incriminate him as an act of subversion. And, in a statement released after his interrogation by the investigators in Milan two weeks ago, Berlusconi insisted that there were"no concrete evidence or witnesses against me. The judicial initiative that has involved the prime minister is based, incredibly, on a theory lacking any confirmation in evidence." Even so, Berlusconi requested that the records of his interrogation be kept secret. The magistrates have six months to decide whether to incriminate Berlusconi, or drop the case.

Whatever his fate, he has squandered an extraordinary amount of political capital in a very short time. To many, his actions seem to confirm suspicions that he entered the political arena only to protect his private interests. What is more, his government has proved itself incapable of improving political stability. He has only created new tensions, setting back the timetable for political and economic renewal and seriously undermining his country's credibility abroad. Now Italy desperately needs a leader who can reunite it and set it on the right track.