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Italian Magnate's Victory Overturns Old Political System : Election: Silvio Berlusconi and his three-party, rightist pact win majorities in both houses of Parliament.

March 30, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — With a massive swing to the right, Italian voters overturned a half-century-old political system in a single election. In the heady aftermath Tuesday, two questions were paramount: How do you get the fragile new ship of state into the water? Will it float?

Final official returns Tuesday gave a working majority in both houses of Parliament to Milan magnate Silvio Berlusconi and the fractious three-party, rightist pact he forged to take part in his first election.

In a blistering two months, Berlusconi overcame an early campaign lead by a leftist alliance and humiliated centrist parties to improbably emerge from the weekend vote as leader of the nation's biggest party. As such, the 57-year-old head of a $7-billion-a-year media and commercial empire is the leading candidate to head a new government to be installed around April 15.

"The electorate will not be betrayed," a confident Berlusconi told a radio interviewer Tuesday amid doubts that he can bring one of his electoral allies into government with him.

Offering a successful, fresh face to voters disgusted with old pols and corrupt Establishment parties, Berlusconi rocketed to prominence as star of a slick campaign orchestrated by a manager imported from one of the world's leading advertising agencies. With unlimited access to his three national television networks, the balding tycoon became as familiar to Italians as stars of his championship soccer team or products sold at his 550 supermarkets.

"Specially targeted television coverage was the determining factor in the outcome of the entire election," said Carlo Ripa di Meana, whose Greens Party ran as part of the leftist alliance but failed to win a seat.

Victory for Berlusconi's right-wing Freedom Alliance ended almost half a century of political dominance by centrist parties that ruled during the Cold War with paternal blessings from the Vatican and the United States.

Supporters say a rightist government will streamline the Italian government and modernize an economy in which the state is still a major player. Opponents say it means the rich will get richer--Berlusconi chief among them.

Final returns gave the Freedom Alliance 366 seats in a 630-seat Chamber of Deputies, with Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) movement scoring strongest, followed by neo-fascists under Gianfranco Fini and northern federalists under Umberto Bossi.

The vituperative leader of the Northern League--embarrassingly outvoted in his home territory of Lombardy by Forza Italia--insists he will not participate in any government with Fini. Neither will he accept Berlusconi as prime minister--because, he says, the tycoon is too new to politics and too much a pillar of Italian big business, which Bossi says needs reforming.

In the Chamber, a leftist alliance led by the former Italian Communist Party won 213 seats, and 46 went to the center--the renamed Christian Democrats and reformer Mario Segni, with minor parties sharing the rest. In the 315-seat Senate, the right fell short of an absolute majority. Berlusconi's alliance captured 155 seats to 122 for the left, 31 for the centrists and seven for minor parties.

"The left hadn't changed enough, and everyone underestimated the hatred of Italians for the traditional parties," said Rome sociologist Franco Ferarotti. The former Communists appeared to have been hurt by the inclusion in their election alliance of an unrepentant Marxist splinter, which called for taxes on government bonds--a favorite form of savings--and Italian withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Christian Democrats, who have controlled all 52 Italian governments since World War II, saw their vote almost halved. Four of its longtime coalition partners, all beheaded by an unprecedented corruption scandal, failed to win any seats at all--including the once powerful Italian Socialist Party, which won 92 Chamber seats in the last elections in 1992.

In slamming the door on a scandal-scarred political Establishment in the initial election in which most candidates were elected winner-take-all, Italians effectively launched the "Second Republic." As a result, the vote became the first truly different result in more than four decades of frequent elections but only glacial change.

"Welcome, Second Republic. But keep in mind that the magistracy has not lowered its guard," said Gerardo D'Ambrosio, deputy prosecutor in Milan, where investigating magistrates uncovered the still-mushrooming scandal of bribes and kickbacks from business leaders to politicians and parties in exchange for public contracts.

Although there are frequent calls for a political solution to the scandal known as Tangentopoli (Kickback City), magistrates who already have implicated several thousand prominent Italians say they will continue their work, whatever happens next.

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