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POLITICS : Berlusconi Finds Few Allies, Many Troubles as Italy Leader


ROME — It's easy to explain how Silvio Berlusconi went from being the tycoon who has everything to the man who seems to have nothing but trouble: He became prime minister of Italy.

A year ago, he presided in growing alarm over his Fininvest media-'n'-things empire that employs about 40,000 people and has annual receipts of about $7 billion. As he watched, corrupt political parties that ran Italy for nearly half a century toppled in disgrace, one after another.

Their most likely successor was the former Italian Communist Party, now social democratic but still millionaire-chary and red-faced against Berlusconi holdings that include the three main private television channels.

So he founded a political party named Forza Italia and based it on the system of fan clubs boosting his European-best AC Milan soccer team. He led it to resounding electoral victory in just three months.

But there have been few government goals and a lot of beleaguered defense since Berlusconi, 58, took office in May. He grouses that he's working harder than ever for less than $1,000 a week--and, worse, gets no respect.

This morning, millions of Italians are to walk off their jobs in a nationwide strike to protest a government austerity budget that endangers hallowed social benefits, particularly pensions.

Today's protest is just one twist in a skein of troubles entangling a self-made political rookie thoroughly buffeted by political enemies. And friends.

One ambitious ally in Berlusconi's right-wing coalition is rebellious; the other is positioning himself as a potential successor.

Umberto Bossi, the loose-cannon populist leader of the Northern League, for one, demurs loudly against government initiatives.

Slick neo-fascist chief Gianfranco Fini, for another, is pressing to dissolve the party forged by fans of former dictator Benito Mussolini. Fini, 42, wants to replace the Italian Social Movement, his springboard to prominence, with the broader, less extreme, more electable National Alliance, a rightist movement he formed last year.

Fini gets higher poll ratings than Berlusconi, who's fighting angrily with anti-corruption judges and with Parliament over ways to guard against conflicts-of-interest between his business empire and his government post.

Berlusconi initially profited from judicial investigations documenting corruption between businesses and political parties in previous governments.

But now, he has joined critics who argue that the judges have become politically motivated and are abusing their authority in the ever-widening corruption inquiry.

One particular issue is the use of preventive detention as a means of making suspects talk: Senior industrialists have routinely been imprisoned at a judge's pleasure without charge or recourse to bail, sometimes without even having been interrogated. The tactic has loosened many tongues.

Last week, chief Milan Judge Francesco Saverio Borrelli hinted that Berlusconi himself might become a target in investigations of a pay TV station partially owned by Fininvest.

Appearing at a raucous Senate session Wednesday, Berlusconi said Borrelli, whom the government is formally accusing of malfeasance, is guilty of "political intimidation." Parliamentary opponents say the government is undermining magistrates' work, and the judges say they are doing their job, which has made them some of the most popular people in Italy.

Berlusconi is richer and has greater power to influence public opinion than any American President. Now, after prolonged study, a panel has recommended a law that would separate him from Fininvest without forcing him to sell. The empire has been run by an aide since Berlusconi took office, but the prime minister has held strategy sessions with leading managers.

Berlusconi promises quick legislation to establish an Italian version of a blind trust. But opponents say there is no assurance of independent monitoring.

Ominously for Berlusconi, one bill demanding the sale of his TV interests is being advanced by Bossi, his erstwhile coalition partner.

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