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Profile : Italian Tycoon Tackles Business of Ruling : He owns everything from TV stations to a soccer team. But critics ask if his Midas touch can apply to a nation.


ROME — Billionaire entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi leaped improbably to power this spring as a new political product that disgruntled Italian voters would buy. Now the question is whether he can run a government as successfully as he has run his businesses.

Does Berlusconi really clean better? Can he build a fresher, brighter Italy?

Tune in later. First, the man who has everything must establish credibility as a national leader.

The media mogul turned prime minister is a political rookie on the national stage, and so are most members of Italy's new Parliament. Nearly all of the two dozen Cabinet officers are making their ministerial debut, and inexperience is the common denominator as the 57-year-old Milan tycoon launches the first frankly conservative government in Italy since World War II. Berlusconi must:

* Put forward specific initiatives to address urgent national needs--from unemployment to organized crime, from tax reform to health care.

* Convince skeptical Italians that he will not abuse power to further his own economic interests.

* Harness fractious neo-fascists and federalist allies making their debut in government in order to convince Italians--and Western allies--that they are truly committed to democracy and national cohesion.

The demands on Italy's 53rd postwar government are apparent, as are the resentment and uncertainties Berlusconi has roused at the head of a new party with the catchy name Forza Italia (Go, Italy).

"This strange coalition of neo- and post-fascists and Forza Italia formed in two months directly from a large business (and) governed by one man like a business . . . is not reliable as a democratic European government," complained leftist Sen. Eduardo Ronchi, who voted against the new regime's narrow confirmation by the Italian Senate last week.

A dynamic risk-taker who is one of Europe's richest men, Berlusconi seems undaunted by the tasks and unimpressed by critics.

"It's quite common for politicians to go into business. Why is there such a negative attitude about a businessman becoming a politician? Everything I have done in business has been transparent with respect to the law," he said last week.

Berlusconi is a free-market man; economically he would be at home with Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. His two main coalition partners, by contrast, are preoccupied less with economics than with the structure of government and society:

* The Northern League, under Sen. Umberto Bossi, seeks a decentralized Italy that would devolve into three regional, largely self-governing republics.

* The National Alliance, headed by Gianfranco Fini, is the direct descendant of Benito Mussolini's Fascist Party. Claiming to be "post-fascist," it speaks evocatively of law, order and morality. Like the Northern League, the National Alliance wants strict controls on immigration.


The thrust of the ruling triumvirate represents a major shift for Italy. The first 52 governments after World War II were dominated by the centrist Christian Democrats. They preached social consensus and built a major state role in the economy, recently diminished by a privatization scheme that Berlusconi will continue.

One price for a closed circle of power that became a partitocrazia --an aristocracy of the ruling parties--was inefficiency and ever-greater government deficits: The parties created too many do-little government jobs for too many supporters.

Another price was massive corruption. As demands of ever-growing party superstructures required more money, illegal payoffs to political parties for government contracts became institutionalized.

An investigation that began in Milan in 1992 has now spread to virtually every major city.

One London bank estimates payoffs of $10 billion to $20 billion in 12 years, and some Italian magistrates say the total is even higher.

The probes have thus far implicated five former prime ministers, seven former party leaders, 39 former ministers and more than 2,000 leading businessmen and managers, including Berlusconi's brother.

Careful to select ministers untainted by any hint of impropriety, Berlusconi has vowed to give magistrates a free hand to pursue their investigations into official corruption.

He has also pledged to continue the government's campaign against the Mafia, a crackdown that had made unprecedented progress in the last two years but is now under counterattack.

Last week, Berlusconi's new Interior minister, Roberto Maroni, rushed to the Mafia stronghold of Sicily to reassure small-town leftist mayors who have been targets of firebombings and other leave-us-alone warnings from the Mafia.

Voters who carried Berlusconi to office are mainstream Italians fed up with crime and corruption and intrigued by the economic promises of a man who has shown that he can make his ideas work in the marketplace.

Berlusconi says, with few specifics so far, that he will attack an unemployment rate of 11.3% by creating 1 million jobs over the next 30 months.

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