The Two Faces of Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi has endured a bumpy first month of his six-month presidency of the EU. Much of Europe is getting its first close look at Italy's billionaire Prime Minister, and many do not like what they see. But Europe should look beyond Berlusconi's careless tongue when gauging the nature of his regime. They may still not like what he stands for and how he governs, but they will see that he is not the unchallenged ``strong man'' that some Europeans imagine.

Berlusconi's center-right coalition won election in 2001 by claiming to be the sole political force capable of launching--and completing--an ambitious reform program. Sadly for Italy, Premier Berlusconi turned out to have two reform agendas. One is focused on his own judicial and economic interests (call this his ``personal reform'' program), much of which he has pursued and implemented ruthlessly. The other, ``general reform'' agenda, has attracted scarcely any of his energy, and seems unlikely to do so.

Italy's Parliament, where Berlusconi's ruling coalition holds an overwhelming majority, has passed four laws designed to safeguard the Prime Minister against prosecution and conviction. One legal ``reform'' almost abolishes the crime of false accounting; another makes it difficult, if not impossible, to collect evidence of a crime from abroad. A third new law allows trials to be transferred to courts in other jurisdictions if there is ``legitimate suspicion'' that the judges are ``biased''--a claim Berlusconi repeatedly makes against the Milan magistrates (he calls them ``red magistrates'') investigating him. Finally, a law grants immunity from prosecution to the five highest state officials, including, obviously, the Prime Minister.

Berlusconi has been equally active in pushing reforms that serve his economic interests. The Chamber of Deputies is poised to enact a law only the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland could love. This law defines ``conflicts of interest'' in such a way that, although the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a media empire cannot be Prime Minister, the man who actually owns that empire can. More worrying is a proposed law that strengthens the oligopolistic power of Berlusconi's television and advertising corporations while weakening the public television service.