Forza Italia!

April 01, 1994

Italy's landmark election was a victory for anti-politics. It's as if H. Ross Perot had won the U.S. presidency. But the result may still founder on the very Italian style of politics it rejected.

Forty-six years of rule by Christian Democrats, sometimes in coalition with Socialists, was repudiated with derision. The ruling party was disbanded, renamed and relegated to minor status. Christian Democrats and Socialists had earned this fate with scandal after scandal where government and business meet, making their country ultimately a laughing stock in the eyes of its own citizens.

Conventional wisdom had the pendulum swinging left. Achille Occhetto, leader of the Democratic Party of the Left and its Progressive allies, confidently awaited his destiny. But Mr. Occhetto is an old Communist in new clothes, and the Communists are discredited in Italy as elsewhere.

For him to attain power after the collapse of communism was an irony that Silvio Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire developer, retail magnate, television mogul, financier and soccer team owner, would not accept. In only three months, Mr. Berlusconi formed a party named for a soccer cheer, Forza Italia ("Let's Go, Italy!"), and accepted only candidates who televised well and were untainted by experience. He marketed them like soap and offered not programs but slogans, mostly about saving Italy from communism. His coalition won and Mr. Berlusconi should become prime minister after the new parliament meets April 15.

The catch is that he won with Freedom Alliance partners that are incompatible with one another and with him. The Northern League champions regional autonomy and less government, so that the rich North can stop subsidizing the poor South. The National Alliance, a new name for the old neo-Fascists descended from Benito Mussolini's dictatorship, flourishes in the poor South. It champions strong central government to create jobs.

Northern League leader Umberto Bossi even calls Mr. Berlusconi too big in businesses to be fit to lead. Now these three parties that jointly won 366 of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies must undertake two weeks of tortuous negotiation to create a government. That always happens after an Italian election. The new politics suddenly resembles the old. Mr. Berlusconi convinced Italians to repudiate their past. That gives him an awesome responsibility as steward of their future.

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