Berlusconi’s hat in ring

Silvio Berlusconi finally made his long-expected official entry into Italian national politics Monday when he announced that his nascent political party will team up with the Lombard League, forming a right-wing coalition in a bid to win the spring elections.

Regardless of whether the self-made tycoon’s party ultimately wins the race, the panorama of Italy’s TV business has been irreversibly changed by his decision.

Though he’s already being tagged “the Ross Perot of Italy,” little is known about the actual strength of Berlusconi’s political movement except that his sizable sales force has been canvassing potential supporters since midsummer. Presumably, it’s this sort of political consensus the entrepreneur isbringing to the bargaining table by offering an alliance with the conservative Lombard League.

The alliance, announced at the League’s party conference in Assago, was born out of a common desire to keep the Democratic Left Party (PDS) from winning the spring elections.

The PDS (ex-Communist Party) and Berlusconi have been at loggerheads since the Milanese mogul began building what has now become one of Europe’s largest media companies. The party has tried unsuccessfully to limit Berlusconi’s growth at every critical juncture in his career.

In fact, the key to deciphering Berlusconi’s political ambitions is simple: If the PDS wins the spring elections, one of the first things the new government is expected to do is pass a new broadcasting law forcing him to sell one or even two of his three private national channels.

With his longtime political protectors, Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, destroyed by the corruption scandal that has implicated hundreds of businessmen and politicians in a widespread system of kickbacks, Berlusconi clearly wants to protect his TV empire from being dismantled.

Although he is expected to step down from the helm of Fininvest during the campaign, the potential effect of the tycoon’s involvement in politics on the country’s TV and publishing biz has already caused an uproar. With three TV networks, the country’s largest publisher, a popular soccer team and a large department store chain at his disposal, Berlusconi possesses a formidable advantage over other political forces in terms of reaching the public.

There are concerns that the temptation to use his media clout to help his political cause will simply be too great to resist.

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