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Misfire for Berlusconi

FOR one who came to office pledging economic and political renewal, Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has rapidly become his own staunchest adversary.

Not without cause, his opponents see in several of his recent actions cronyism and an authoritarian hand, a perception intensified by the presence of the neofascist National Alliance party, as well as the right-wing Northern League, in his coalition.

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The latest incident involves an emergency decree banning the use of preventive detention against people suspected of corruption. The tool has been vital to the progress of Italian magistrates investigating the graft that permeated postwar Italian politics. Mr. Berlusconi justified his move by pointing to overcrowded prisons, the slowness with which suspects are brought to trial, the need to reserve preventive detention only for serious crimes, and a prime minister's duty to stand up for the weak.

That some 2,000 top political and business leaders are in jail could be seen as an emergency. But to suggest that they are among the weak or that their alleged crimes are not serious underestimates corruption's economic damage as well as its impact on Italy's political culture.

Berlusconi's delayed-justice observation is shared by the United States State Department, which has criticized Italy for its preventive-detention policy. Yet his move would ring truer as civil-liberties reform if he had worked legislatively, had consulted with front-line investigators, and had taken the time to build a case for change with a public that overwhelmingly supports the magistrates' corruption-busting efforts. But he did not. Meanwhile, the probe has touched his brother, Paolo Berlusconi, as well as friend and former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.

Since the decree was issued last Wednesday, more than 1,000 detainees, including fewer than 200 held in the probe, have been released. And for the time being, prospects for the coalition's collapse over the issue appear to have eased. Northern League leader Umberto Bossi asked that the decree be withdrawn but also noted that the incident should not be used as an excuse for new elections.

The decree should be rescinded, or rejected when it comes up for ratification in Parliament within the next two months. If reform comes to Italy's preventive-detention system - and it should - it should come through the political process, not by fiat.

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