Berlusconi's Blunder

July 21, 1994

Silvio Berlusconi, the business magnate and neophyte politician, became prime minister of Italy and head of an unlikely rightist coalition because his countrymen were fed up with corruption. Forgetting that, he almost brought the edifice down before its newness wore off.

Although it was disgust with extortions and kickbacks of the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties of the old order that put Mr. Berlusconi's new party on top, many Italians wondered how he could have become so phenomenally successful in business so rapidly without a touch of the same.

It was those suspicions that Mr. Berlusconi ignited with a decree ending detention before trial for many kinds of suspects including those implicated in white-collar crimes and corruption. Immediately, 124 suspects were let out.

The country exploded. Many of the investigating magistrates, who are now the disillusioned country's only respected public officials, threatened to quit. They believed a major tool for extracting confessions had been withdrawn. Mr. Berlusconi's coalition partners who were formerly less reputable than he, the separatist Northern League and the neo-Fascist National Alliance, threatened to bring their own government down in indignation.

Mr. Berlusconi had given only high-minded civil libertarian reasons for his decree. (Most Americans would instinctively agree, since our own system allows freedom for almost any suspect who can make bail.) But Italians thought immediately of his brother who is among the suspect, employees of his firms who have been rumored under investigation and his friendship for a former prime minister who is sheltering from Italian justice in exile.

Mr. Berlusconi backed down and revised the decree. Some 3,000 persons suspected of corruption must still worry about the threat of detention. The coalition survives. The former separatists bTC and former Fascists are now its shiny brights, untainted by his impetuosity. Chastened, he admitted only to having a communications problem. He said this on the three television networks he owns.

That particular crisis is over. But it did permanent damage. Italians, disillusioned with many of their national institutions, need something in which to believe. Maybe that something won't be Mr. Berlusconi after all.

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