Italy Finds Pulling Down System Easier than Building One

August 07, 1994|By BEPPE SEVERGNINI

I am sure you have heard this many times: Italians are smart, resourceful and can fend for themselves. They are hopeless, however, when it comes to making a modern democracy work.

After a long, clumsy dictatorship (Mussolini), Italy had 50 years of short-lived governments, an embarrassing public life and an overblown state sector of the economy. But three years ago -- possibly because they are smart -- Italians decided they had had enough.

They wanted a normal country. Not perfect. Just normal -- with the normal share of inept governments, incompetent politicians and corrupt bureaucrats. Just like our G-7 friends. Just like the rest of the world.

With no more Communists to keep out of power, we started to vote for new political parties. Magistrates -- for years very quiet when it came to corruption in high places -- felt emboldened and HTC started to investigate the old order. What they found defied even Italian's cynicism and imagination (which, believe me, are considerable).

The scandals that came to light, compared to Whitewater, were like Niagara Falls. More than 7,000 people were charged, including 438 members of Parliament. Many went to jail. A few killed themselves.

The old order collapsed, as it did in Eastern Europe. Italy -- a country where farce abounds -- had a taste of real drama, and didn't like it.

Pulling down the old system proved easier than putting up a new one. In the general election last March -- branded "historic," of course; for once, it was -- Italians were faced with what I consider a poor choice.

On one hand was a patchwork of left-wing parties, dominated by the former Communists (who, in the old days, had settled very cozily into their role of apparent opposition, splitting up powerful jobs with the government).

On the other hand was Silvio Berlusconi, a tycoon whose $7 billion-a-year Fininvest empire spanned television networks, advertising, newspapers, real estate, sports teams, insurance companies, supermarkets and financial services. Italians knew that he was a close friend of disgraced Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who had given him crucial help in many business ventures, including his television networks. They knew he had no experience in public office. They knew that if he were elected, his business empire would be a problem.

Having Mr. Berlusconi as prime minister would be like the United States having a president who owned CBS, ABC, NBC, Newsweek, and People magazines, the Boston Globe, Simon & Schuster, Safeway, Allstate Insurance and the Baltimore Orioles.

Most Italians decided not to care. He was new. He was tanned (in February, that should have been suspicious). He was bold: He promised to create a million jobs in his first year in office. (Unfortunately, "read my lips" doesn't translate into Italian).

He was shrewd. Just months away from the World Cup, he picked up the soccer cry Forza Italia (Go, Italy) as his party's name. He was impeccably dressed.

He had a Reaganesque smile, a Perotian appeal, a mildly Thatcherite economic program.

The left screamed bloody murder (but they always did). Only a few independent-minded commentators pointed out that it was not going to work. To no avail. Italy, last spring, was like a stubborn girl who refuses any advice from family or friends. She waves goodbye, hops into her new boyfriend's sports car, and leaves for the weekend.

As usual, friends and family turned out to be right. The first three months of the new government have been, to put it mildly, something of a disaster. Not only was there no economic program worthy of the name, no cuts in the budget deficit, no proposal to reduce the national debt, Italy's single biggest problem. Worse, Berlusconi the businessman was involved in every decision Berlusconi the prime minister made.

Sometimes it was inevitable, sometimes it was more suspicious. He appointed his own business executives to Cabinet positions. (Some, quite obviously, are not up to it.) When his brother, Paolo, was wanted, charged with having paid bribes to tax authorities, the prime minister met with the fugitive's lawyers. When he decided to rein in state television, it was pointed out that he owns the private half of television, where news coverage ranges from friendly to servile. (By the way, three state channels plus three private networks -- all Berlusconi-owned -- makes six. Six channels in the hands of the chief executive would raise %J eyebrows even in Haiti.)

Mr. Berlusconi's main problem is that, so far, he doesn't seem to notice the not-so-fine line between private and public, between his company and his party, between his party and the state. More and more people, not only political commentators, have come to realize this.

His allies (Northern League and neo-fascist National Alliance) have become restless. His approval rating has dropped. So has his famous smile, that smile he flashed so confidently last month when he entertained President Clinton and other world leaders at the G-7 summit in Naples.

For Italy, this is not dramatic. (One more failed government? That makes 52 since World War II.) It is sad.

If Prime Minister Berlusconi doesn't quickly come up with some drastic solutions (getting rid of his TV networks to start with, as he has promised to do), he is going to waste a historic opportunity. Italy -- unlike the United States or Britain -- has never had a conservative government. It is curious to see what it is going to be like.

Italians may not have the chance to satisfy that curiosity. Rumor has it that if the Berlusconi government falls, an "institutional government" (meaning: everybody on board) will be formed to steer the country to a new election. Well, that would make governments 53 and 54. Nothing to worry about. Italy loves numbers. That's why the national lottery has been so popular. But most of the time, people lose.

Beppe Severgnini is U.S. editor for the Italian daily newspaper La Voce.

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