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Berlusconi New Italian Premier Indictments, Fickle Allies Are Potential Pitfalls for New PM

By Richard Boudreaux
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- ROME

As official returns confirmed his coalition’s decisive victory in Italian elections, Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant billionaire tycoon, filled the airwaves Monday night with the measured tones of a statesman and humble servant of the people.

There were no self-comparisons with Napoleon, no tirades against communists, prosecutors, journalists and others on his enemies list. Instead, he sounded unusually solicitous and, by his standards, dull.

Berlusconi is returning to the premier’s office with a stronger mandate than most Italian leaders get -- one he pledges to use to modernize the country with the Midas touch of a man worth $12.8 billion.

But the 64-year-old media magnate is vulnerable and must watch his every step. He is under indictment for alleged tax fraud and bribery of judges. He is under scrutiny for any conflict between his public duties and vast private interests. And he is again at the mercy of a fickle ally whose defection toppled his previous attempt at governing six years ago.

How Berlusconi navigates these obstacles will determine whether Italy remains a solid partner in Europe’s monetary and political union, whose leaders tend to view him as an unsavory interloper, and whether his own country evolves into a more stable democracy.

“He can be an irate person,” says James Walston, professor of political science at the American University of Rome. “Will he survive a five-year term? I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Nearly complete returns Monday evening gave Berlusconi’s center-right House of Freedoms alliance firm control of both houses of Parliament -- 177 of 324 seats in the Senate and at least 330 of 630 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

Adding up hundreds of local races, pollsters said Berlusconi’s forces won roughly 45 percent of the popular vote followed by about 40 percent for the center-left Olive Tree coalition led by Rome’s two-term former mayor, Francesco Rutelli.

Rutelli conceded defeat Monday but pledged his coalition would “work day and night” to force Berlusconi to divest himself of his business empire, which includes Italy’s three biggest private TV networks, its biggest publishing group and the AC Milan soccer team.