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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Berlusconi: The billion-dollar question
Silvio Berlusconi at RAI
Silvio Berlusconi on state televison under an image of centre-left rival Francesco Rutelli
By Brian Barron in Rome

Riding back to power with promises of modernising Italy, billionaire Silvio Berlusconi has been vague about the details.

Pensions will be raised. Taxes cut. No-one knows how such changes will be financed.

Mr Berlusconi already has unrivalled mastery over Italy's commercial television and media outlets.

Berlusconi signs a five-point
Berlusconi and a "contract" with the Italian people
Election success has now brought control over the state television networks - a concentration of power unprecedented in any major Western democracy.

During the campaign, Mr Berlusconi was the target of satire - for his pledges to improve law, and his readiness to blame illegal immigrants for crime.

Scrutiny

A comedienne who impersonates him, Sabrina Guzzante, predicted before the poll that a Berlusconi victory would spell the end for television shows like hers.


It's very hard to own companies that are worth billions of dollars, and make crucial decisions of economic policy

Franco Pavoncello, John Cabot University
"The problem is that he has the private television and the public television, so it means you cannot do anything different from his point of view," she says.

"So for this reason, everybody's saying that is a dangerous situation."

The mysterious origins of Mr Berlusconi's huge fortune are under scrutiny - a book based on fraud squad investigations is a bestseller.

Other questions have been asked about the compatibility of heading a government and a business empire.

"There is a conflict here, in that it's very hard to own companies that are worth billions of dollars, and make the crucial decisions of economic policy of a country that affect those companies," says Professor Franco Pavoncello, of John Cabot University in Rome.

Corporate know-how

But former Foreign Minister Antonio Martino says Mr Berlusconi will be ready to take drastic action to avoid such a conflict of interest - even selling his business interests if necessary.

Election posters in downtown Rome
Conflict of interest? Many voters are unworried
"My view about Berlusconi is that he is a man who has a single purpose - singleness of purpose is his main characteristic," he says.

Mr Berlusconi intends to run Italy with the same corporate know-how as his AC Milan football club.

As for the corruption cases against him, which investigators are still pursuing, he says he is the victim of left-wing magistrates.

But the questions about conflict of interest are the most pressing.

Failure to divest, to sell up, could cost him credibility, especially in the eyes of fellow European leaders.

But many Italian voters did not seem to care.

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