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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Reign of two halves for Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi: Stormed to power using football metaphors
By David Willey in Rome

Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi had his first taste of prime ministerial power seven years ago.

His centre-right victory, in March 1994, came only months after he had created a new party from scratch.

Forza Italia replaced the Christian Democrat and Socialist parties which had imploded as a result of the "Tangentopoli" or "Bribesville" scandal.

Francesco Rutelli
Left-wing candidate Francesco Rutelli has closed on Berlusconi
Using the language and slogans of the football field, Berlusconi created a new simplistic political language which immediately won over many Italians used to the deliberately obscurantist terminology of the fusty old political parties.

He talked incessantly about "coming out onto the field", "players" and "winning the game". He seemed to have a magic touch.

Even the Milan football team he owned (and still owns) won the European Champions League title with a 4-0 victory over Barcelona that year.

Born-again fascists

On 29 March 1994, Forza Italia became Italy's largest single political party, winning 21% of the general election vote, beating the former communists - now retitled the PDS or the Democratic Party of the Left - by just under one percentage point.

The former neo-Fascist party or MSI - renamed Alleanza Nazionale after abjuring its Fascist origins - got a record 13% of the vote, while the Northern League got 8%. On 11 May, a centre-right coalition was put together - after some exhaustive haggling between the partners.

The end came rapidly after only seven months of Berlusconi government

No fewer than five ministries went to the Alleanza Nazionale.

Although both the right and the left had promised reform of a state in which the ordinary voter had little confidence, they preferred to believe that Mr Berlusconi, the country's most successful entrepreneur, with his business acumen and dynamism was more likely to succeed.

There was a weakness in his position however. Although he had a working majority in the Chamber of Deputies, he had none in the upper house, the Senate.

Nuns with election poster
The election has been closely-fought
In the early months after his election victory, it looked as if Mr Berlusconi might achieve his ambition of becoming leader of a reformed political system as quickly as he had given birth to Forza Italia.

In the European elections of June 1994, the new Berlusconi party got 30.6% of the votes and, together with his two coalition partners, had just over 50% of the total.

An opinion poll taken that summer found that over 70% of Italians believed their country needed a "strong leader".

But things turned quickly sour. Umberto Bossi, when he saw a fall-off in support for his separatist Northern League in the European elections, began to doubt whether Mr Berlusconi was sincere in his promises to push federalism.

Unwise words

As for Gianfranco Fini, his unwise public statement that Mussolini was "the greatest statesman of the 20th century" was immediately splashed around the world, and created doubts in the minds of many Europeans about the seriousness of the credentials of his made-over post-Fascist party.

In July 1994, Mr Berlusconi's Justice Minister, Alfredo Biondi, issued a decree in effect bringing to an end the judicial process called "Clean Hands", which had upset the old political system so entirely as to provide the conditions for the successful creation of Forza Italia.

The conflict-of-interest dispute over the public and private roles of Italy's wealthiest citizen who was also serving as prime minister was never resolved

There was an immediate outcry from the judges and prosecutors of "Clean Hands" that Mr Berlusconi was trying to destroy their work, and was trying to save the thousands of politicans and businessmen - including himself - who had been indicted on corruption charges.

The decree was withdrawn. Failure to reform the state pension scheme turned out to be another stumbling block.

On 12 November, one-and-a-half million workers demonstrated in Rome against Mr Berlsuconi's pension cutting budget. It was the biggest trade union demonstration in the history of Italy's postwar republic.

Corruption charges

The end came rapidly after only seven months of Berlusconi government.

On 22 November 1994, Mr Berlusconi was chairing a United Nations conference in Naples on organised crime when he received papers from Milan prosecutors informing him he was under formal investigation on corruption charges.

On 13 December, he appeared before the magistrates. Umberto Bossi withdrew his support from the government and on 22 December 1994 Silvio Berlusconi resigned, bringing to an end to yet another "revolving door" Italian government which had lasted just seven months.

The economic and organisational problems of the Italian state had not been solved.

And the conflict-of-interest dispute over the public and private roles of Italy's wealthiest citizen who was also serving as prime minister was never resolved.

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