Magazine article Insight on the News

Italians See Honeymoon Come to End

Magazine article Insight on the News

Italians See Honeymoon Come to End

Article excerpt

The euphoria that accompanied Silvio Berlusconi's meteoric rise to the top of Italy's power pyramid in the March elections has all but evaporated, burned away by scandal.

Charges of corruption reached the prime minister's immediate family in July, when Berlusconi's younger brother, Paolo, admitted authorizing payments to tax inspectors. Paolo Berlusconi has surrendered to authorities and is under house arrest. The prime minister strongly denies any knowledge of payoffs and accuses prosecutors of trying to sabotage his fledgling government.

Berlusconi, 57, Italy's first premier from the ranks of commerce, vowed last month to build "an impenetrable wall" between his office and his $7 billion-a-year business ventures. A special commission has been set up to supervise the task. Berlusconi's political backers applaud the move. "He has saved himself from the fire," says Mario Noera, chief economist of a Milan bank. E la nave va, conclude Italian pundits: "And the ship sails on."

Indeed, dramatic as recent developments have been, nothing seems to capsize Italy's ship of state. Governments come and go, 4,000 politicians and businessmen await trial on corruption charges and the Mafia extorts funds -- some of which find their way into church donation boxes and filter down to the poor in the south. The state coffers are perpetually empty, the civil service is hugely overstaffed, and no one can find the $20 billion needed to revamp the country's wasteful economic structure.

Despite all this, Italians continue to design some of the world's most stylish autos, luxurious high-speed trains and precision instruments. Tax collectors stay bemused by the paltry earnings declared by rich Milan industrialists. The country still is the world's largest importer of expensive furs. Unperturbed by the largely cosmetic changes at home, indifferent to the talk of a "new world order," Italy remains a loyal NATO member and the fifth richest nation after the United States, Japan, Germany and France.

For a while -- but apparently a short while -- it looked as if things might change. Berlusconi, owner of three television networks, 290 movie theaters, a chain of supermarkets and a top soccer team, formed a party he called Forza Italia!: "Go, Italy!" The name, already roared by crowds at soccer matches, caught on in politics too, becoming a signal of change.

In record time, Berlusconi cobbled together a coalition of Forza Italia!, northern separatists and southern neofascists. …

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