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Italy: Berlusconi Heading For Victory

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Media magnate Silvio Berlusconi appears to be heading for a victory in yesterday's parliamentary elections in Italy, ahead of his main rival, former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli and the ruling center-left bloc. Computer projections and so-far partial results give Berlusconi's center-right alliance a lead in the parliament's lower house and probably also in the Senate. But a Berlusconi win could complicate Italy's relations with the European Union and affect the EU's expansion to the east. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 14 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- If determination to cast a vote is one of the signs of a healthy democracy, then Italy is doing very well indeed. In yesterday's general elections many Italians, sweating and fatigued, waited in line for hours to cast their ballots. Polling stations were supposed to have closed by late evening (2200 local time), but such was the crush of electors that the last vote was not cast until just before dawn today -- six hours after scheduled closing time.

Italy's Interior Ministry is being blamed for the chaos because it reduced the number of polling stations as an economy measure. Certainly many of the voters were angry at being kept up so late, but most were undeterred; Turnout was estimated at more than 80 percent of Italy's 49 million voters.

Partial results and projections indicate that, as expected, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi's center-right alliance has gained the biggest share of seats in the lower house of parliament. In the Senate, Berlusconi's group appears to be ahead of the incumbent center-left coalition led by former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli.

Berlusconi is the most likely candidate for prime minister, with many Italians pinning their hopes on him to cut through the country's red tape and enliven the economy. Those voters ignored concerns about the possible massive conflict of interests between his political and business life. Berlusconi heads a media-based business empire, raising questions about whether it's healthy for the country to have such intertwining of politics and business.

London-based analyst Steven Everts, of the Center for European Reform, says there are many other unresolved questions surrounding Berlusconi, such as how he acquired his great wealth, as well as various legal cases against him, including fraud and tax evasion. Everts says:

"You either loathe him or you love him. There is a real schism right through Italian society. Those who oppose him say he is not an average right-wing politician with whom you may disagree for ideological or political reasons -- there comes a whole lot of baggage with Berlusconi."

Another analyst, Nicholas Whyte, of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, foresees a gradual encroachment on the well-being of democracy in Italy:

"The important issue is about the nexus between business and politics, and the extent to which power becomes concentrated in a very small circle. Now that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But the problem is, will there be enough flexibility left in the [political] system to allow for the next election to provide for a credible democratic result? And people do not seem to trust Berlusconi with the ability to maintain the type of democratic environment that will be needed for that."

Berlusconi's commitment to true democratic practice is also under a cloud because of his choice of political allies. On his right, there is the colorful Umberto Bossi and his Northern League, which has a strongly anti-immigration stance. There is also the National Alliance of Gianfranco Fini, which traces its roots back to the fascists of the Mussolini era.

Whether by chance or by design, Austria's far-right politician Joerg Haider was in northern Italy -- Bossi's stamping grounds -- for the election. Haider called the center-right's strong showing a "good thing for Europe."

Haider's Freedom Party is part of the ruling coalition in Vienna, whose rise to power last year led the EU to impose controversial sanctions on Austria. Some in the EU have said similar sanctions should be imposed on Italy if people like Bossi join a government. But EU Commission President Romano Prodi has implicitly rejected a repetition of such action. Brussels-based analyst Whyte also counsels restraint:

"I think we will have to judge Berlusconi by his actions. There is a sort of syndrome where we get very agitated about parties that appear to be anti-democratic, and what they might do when they get into power. I think we will have to wait and see."

As regards the EU, analyst Everts says Bossi and other rightists are hostile both toward the European integration project itself and toward the Union's eastward enlargement.

"The instincts, particularly of Bossi, are very skeptical of eastward enlargement, for fear of immigration, for fear of the budget costs, and because of a general fear-and-loathing attitude to the EU."

But Everts notes that once in office, a Berlusconi coalition -- like any other -- would find itself constrained by political realities. For that reason, he does not see Italy's EU opponents on the right as being able to bring about a big swing in the country's support for EU expansion or further internal integration.

In any event, part of the Bossi problem might have been solved by the election itself. Projections indicate a sharp loss of support for the Northern League, which now appears to be down to below 4 percent of the overall vote.