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Italian Premier Bounces Back From the Brink

Berlusconi turns the charm on his testy coalition in wake of probe

`THERE'S so much darkness in Italy. You never know what's going to happen the next day,'' says Paris Valentini, who is standing in the doorway of his Rome clothing store. ``You never know who's scheming ... who's moving the strings to prevent change. I don't understand why we don't become like other countries.''

Mr. Valentini voted for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and says he would do it again, despite Mr. Berlusconi's legal problems. The charismatic right-wing leader rose to power after the March elections by promising to reform government and create a million new jobs.

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Magistrates notified Berlusconi Nov. 22 that he was under investigation over three separate bribes that his Fininvest company, which includes a vast media empire, admitted paying to tax inspectors under authorization from his brother Paolo.

The news at first seemed to have destroyed Berlusconi's government and his political career as well. But he rallied after the scandal, which by American standards was gingerly treated by both the press and the center-left opposition.

On Nov. 29, Berlusconi met with his Cabinet to try to buttress his fragile coalition. But the investigation into Berlusconi's business only intensified tension with the Northern League, whose leader has threatened repeatedly to withdraw from Berlusconi's coalition with the far right.

The prime minister is expected to reach out to the League by proposing terms for greater regional autonomy, the northern-based party's main goal.

The stalwarts

But Valenti does not blame Berlusconi for the turmoil. ``He's a scapegoat. He's someone who has to pay for the mistakes of others,'' he says. ``I'm convinced that the Italians will still give him their votes, because [Berlusconi's opponents] have been hammering away at him too hard. It will be a boomerang, what the old forces are doing.''

Was Berlusconi God's choice to be prime minister? Valentini sidesteps the question, but the prime minister seemed to have no doubt Nov. 25.

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``The one who is chosen by the people is like an anointed of the Lord,'' Berlusconi proclaimed. ``There's something divine in the citizen who chooses his leader.''

Fewer Italians are shouting ``amen,'' however. After months of debate over the conflict of interest between his political and business roles, discontent is growing over the resulting inefficiency of Berlusconi's government.

Berlusconi's Forza Italia party was badly trounced in Nov. 20 mayoral elections in many Italian cities and towns, receiving a mere 12 percent of the vote. Party membership has also plummeted - from 850,000 in June to 300,000 today.

At the same time, the future of Berlusconi's media empire, including three television networks that compete directly with the three state-owned networks, is increasingly precarious.

Berlusconi is under judicial investigation in Rome as well, after former members of the state television's administrative council said he pressured the council before and after he was prime minister to create a TV cartel that would cut state TV advertising income to the financial advantage of the debt-ridden Fininvest.

The Italian Constitutional Court, meanwhile, is to decide in the next few days on the constitutionality of the law that permitted Berlusconi to accumulate so much media power. Press leaks suggest the court will require the prime minister to give up at least one network within a year.

And, according to another press leak, a secret report by tax inspectors says it seems likely, on the basis of documents they examined, that Berlusconi owns more than 10 percent of Telepiu, Italy's pay television. Should this prove true, it would violate the law, and Berlusconi could lose all broadcasting rights.

Trust me

The prime minister, after being notified of the Milan bribery probe, said he had decided to sell his networks. He is more likely to lease one or more of them, however: Experts say finding buyers will be difficult.

As if all this were not enough, Italy's three major trade unions have called an all-day national strike on Dec. 2 against the government's austere 1995 budget. It follows record-breaking participation in a half-day strike in October and a union-backed demonstration in November. Berlusconi plans to meet union leaders Nov. 30 to try to avert the Dec. 2 strike.

In this climate of uncertainty, the stock market is down, the lira has reached historic lows against the deutsche mark, and the economic miracle promised by Berlusconi is a distant dream.

Valentini's daughter Barbara, who manages the store, says business is worse this year than last, and last year was worse than the year before.

Something has to change, Valentini says. He wants to see a true democracy in Italy, with two parties replacing the 10 or 15 that exist today.

``Italy needs new people, not political professionals,'' Valentini explains. ``These various Christian Democrats and Communists ... it's been 50 years, do you understand? They've done nothing but go down the same road as Fascism. In short, Italy has been under some form of Fascism for 70 years.''

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