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Western Press Review: Berlusconi Win May Mean Change In Italy And Beyond

By Daisy Sindelar/Khatya Chhor

Prague, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Italy's richest man is now its new prime minister as well. Media magnate Silvio Berlusconi's strong victory in Italy's general elections Sunday (13 May) dominates today's Western press commentary, with some papers hailing the win as a triumph for business and the free market. Others warn that for Berlusconi, the challenges are only beginning. Conquering Italy's notoriously bureaucratic and fractious system may be more than even a "can-do" personality like Berlusconi can manage. Other comments today look at the Basque elections and U.S. missile defense, which received a mixed reception during consultations in Europe and Asia last week.


Two comments in the "Financial Times" today address Berlusconi's victory. In a news analysis, James Blitz notes that Berlusconi will now face major tests on three fronts: "First, a return to the premiership will intensify the interest in his business affairs [and] alleged conflicts of interest. [Second,] he comes to office with a largely untried team taking charge of an economy that has under-performed all of its main European Union partners for the last five years. [The] third test of the new government will be foreign policy, particularly with the rest of Europe."

Blitz notes that the Belgian government has "taken the lead in expressing concern about [Berlusconi's Northern League ally] Umberto Bossi, claiming he is a 'fascist' and 'a threat to democracy.'" He adds: "Mr. Berlusconi is likely to irritate Italy's European partners with his desire to establish some kind of privileged relationship with the Republican administration in Washington."


In an editorial, the "Financial Times" calls on Berlusconi to "keep his promises [and] deliver his side of the 'contract' offered to the electorate -- tax cuts, higher pensions, more jobs, and a program of public works -- while keeping the government deficit under control."

The paper adds that Berlusconi "has a mandate to liberalize the economy" and that the new government "must come forward with a credible program." The paper also suggests that Italy's new prime minister must "understand that there is inherent conflict between his commercial and political interests [and that] he should demonstrate that he has grasped this by divesting his vast corporate holdings."


A commentary in "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says that even as Italy's richest man and its new prime minister, Berlusconi has not been "elevated to the ranks of those who enjoy unlimited power." Columnist Heinz-Joachim Fischer writes: "This was no landslide victory, and it is one that is likely to be sorely tested by the rough-and-tumble of democratic governance -- meaning the need to contend with a feisty opposition and to find common ground with indispensable coalition partners."

Italians, Fischer continues, did not elect Berlusconi out of "blind trust." They deliberately cast their votes for "the kind of person a head-hunter would describe as 'proactive, enterprising, decisive, persistent, and optimistic,' since his task is nothing less than the modernization of Italy, the dire need for which is glaringly obvious from every angle."


"In democracies," an editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" notes, "leaders derive their legitimacy from the ballot box." It says that Berlusconi is no different, despite heated resistance from leftists in Italy and throughout Europe. The paper writes: "The anti-Berlusconi forces failed [to secure his defeat], so they will now resort to the same gambit attempted across the Atlantic [Ocean] in December, [when George W. Bush was declared U.S. president] -- the claim that the new leader lacks sufficient 'legitimacy' to carry out his program."

Berlusconi, the paper notes, "has a big job ahead. If he succeeds in carrying out his promises -- a huge if -- he will have performed a great service to Italian voters. And maybe some day he can even gain the respect of his many enemies."


A second editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" looks at Sunday's elections in the Basque country. The paper says there are no easy conclusions to draw from the ballot results, which saw the radical ETA separatist party lose half its parliamentary seats and left nationalists with a comfortable majority over the two main Madrid-based, non-nationalist parties.

"In the Basque region," the paper writes, "you take what you can get. If [the Basque National Party, or PNV] had lost power, it would likely have grown more radical. ETA's ranks might have swelled and violence escalated. A non-nationalist majority would also have nurtured Basque nationalists' myth of persecution, which is already thriving without help."

It adds: "The majority of Spain does not support Basque independence. Moreover, this Balkan-style trend of countries fracturing into tinier, more homogeneous bits is troublesome, for subdivision is potentially infinite. 'Self-determination,' taken to its absolute, means every man is an island."


Several comments look at plans for a U.S. missile defense and space-based initiatives, which continue to gain momentum within the Bush administration -- if not necessarily within journalistic circles. "The New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman writes: "It is absurd that a system that has kept the peace for 50 years -- classic deterrence, reinforced by arms control -- is so hated by the Republican right. The notion that rogue leaders are so crazy they cannot be deterred is in itself crazy. Do you think," Friedman asks, "Kim Jong II, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or the Iranian mullahs have managed to stay in power as long as they have by behaving like suicidal fanatics? I don't think so."

He adds: "It's good to have layers of defense, just as it's good to have belts and suspenders. But if you already have suspenders, it would be crazy to pay $100 billion for a belt of uncertain reliability (exchange existing policy of Mutually Assured Destruction for anti-missile defense shield) -- especially if that belt makes it more likely your pants will fall down."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's major reorganization of Pentagon space programs -- announced last week as Bush administration officials sought support for missile defense in Europe and Asia -- "looks like part of a deliberate campaign to increase funding for the development of anti-satellite and anti-missile space weapons."

The paper writes: "In large part, the United States owes its military dominance to a virtual monopoly on space satellites. Without wasting enormous sums on the pursuit of weapons in space, American satellites can be better protected by launching more of them, placing them in higher orbits, having aircraft capable of providing backup, and making their ground stations much less vulnerable than they are today."

If Rumsfeld, the paper adds, "is permitted to pursue a space weapons boondoggle, the result will be to endanger America's unrivaled advantage in space satellites, squander money, [and] validate the complaints of [those] who fear an American lust for global domination."


A commentary in "The New York Times" says Rumsfeld's Pentagon reshuffle runs the risk of alienating two key countries -- Russia and China -- before missile defense can even get off the ground. Security affairs analyst Paul Stares writes: "President Bush was careful not to refer to space or space-based systems in his remarks about missile defense, but Mr. Rumsfeld implicitly linked the two. Since none of the rogue states like North Korea and Iraq have any satellites to speak of, Russia and China can legitimately wonder whom America sees as its future adversary in space."

He adds: "Not all missile defense options available to the United States are viewed by other nations as unambiguously defensive. [The United States] should focus its research on [systems] which would not have offensive capabilities against satellites. [The] Bush administration should pursue a diplomatic strategy designed to promote space as a sanctuary from weapons attack."


A commentary in "The Washington Post" -- published in today's "International Herald Tribune" -- calls for improved understanding between the people of the U.S. and China. Harvard University professor Ezra Vogel, who recently spent a month lecturing students in China, writes that the American public "has an image of China shaped by the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution, and the 1989 Tiananmen incident [But] one sees at Beijing University the same kind of open debate and lively curiosity found in the best universities anywhere."

China's youth, he continues, "recognize that their government would gain goodwill internationally by giving Western correspondents more freedom [and] by stopping arrests of those who attack the government publicly or are suspected of spying. One senses that when this generation gets to power, it will continue to increase protection of individual rights. But [they] are more understanding of their leaders than the American public because they know [that] tighter controls may be more necessary than in the United States."


In a second commentary on the same subject, a U.S. citizen of Chinese descent writes about Beijing's "hostage politik" -- imprisoning people to use as bargaining chips in its dealings with the West. Yongyi Song -- a U.S. university librarian who two years ago was held for nearly six months in China on suspicion of spying -- writes in "The Wall Street Journal Europe": "The frightening thing about China's state secrets law is that it is so vaguely defined, making its use inherently arbitrary. Those who fall victim are usually detained incommunicado and lose many formal rights granted to others, including the right to see a lawyer. [When] I asked to see a lawyer, my interrogators said, 'Even if you win at trial, you will still be convicted.'"

He adds: "Ironically, before I was allowed to return home to the U.S., the Ministry of State Security's Beijing bureau threw a farewell party for me [where they] praised me as a 'patriotic scholar' and asked me to speak favorably on behalf of the Chinese government."