Berlusconi win bodes change for Italo media

In one of the most spectacular success stories of postwar European politics, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party stormed toward a stunning victory in Italy’s national elections Monday.

As leader of the top vote-getting party, Berlusconi is a likely choice to be named prime minister.

The victory for Berlusconi at the ballot box bodes enormous change for the media landscape in Italy: Both Berlusconi’s own Fininvest media empire and rival pubcaster RAI are struggling under mountains of debt, and the country as a whole has yet to enact legislation that will prepare it for a high-tech future.

While the coalition partners in Berlusconi’s Freedom Alliance do not see eye to eye on media policy, they have all pledged considerable changes in the country’s media mix.

o RAI’s role will be greatly reduced if the right succeeds in enacting media reforms. Berlusconi’s partners, the Lombard League and the neo-fascist National Alliance, would like to end the license fee funding of RAI and privatize one or more channels. The left-wing parties would fight such legislation.

o Political pressure may force Fininvest to divest itself of one of its three webs — a move that would help the company’s bottom line. Berlusconi himself has gone on record saying he would welcome competition from another private broadcaster.

o Fininvest can be expected to expand into other businesses: The soon-to-be-privatized phone company is a likely target for acquisition.

o With Berlusconi in government, shares of his publishing house will likely be snapped up as soon as they are offered on the Milan stock exchange later this year.

Berlusconi resigned several months ago as chief of the powerful Fininvest group, Europe’s largest private media empire, to enter politics, although he and his family still control the debt-laden company. He also owns the champion soccer club AC Milan.

Berlusconi was criticized for using his friendship with former Socialist premier Bettino Craxi — disgraced last year in the nationwide kickback scandals — to further his business fortunes in the 1980s. Opponents also fear he will use his media empire to relentlessly push his political objectives.

Berlusconi has not been personally implicated in the two-year probe of political and corporate kickbacks. But his brother was arrested in February on charges of taking money to push through a real estate deal, and police last week seized Forza Italia candidate lists as part of an investigation into links with criminal activity by secret Masonic lodges.

Berlusconi, whose populist themes (despite his own personal wealth) and volunteer-based campaign organization brought comparisons with Texas billionaire and former U.S. presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, himself won an impressive 47% of the vote in the Rome district where he ran for a seat in parliament.

Monday night’s results climaxed a stunning jump from business to politics for the 57-year-old Berlusconi, who began his career as a nightclub crooner. In the mid-1980s he turned his attention to the media, building up an empire of three private commercial networks rivaling the three state-owned RAI channels.

Forza Italia was built around Berlusconi’s belief that only a free-market business climate can pull Italy out of its recession. It also stressed themes such as lower taxes and stricter immigration laws.

“If the election results continue to favor us, we will offer good government and a positive program for all Italians, including our opponents,” he told ecstatic followers at the Forza Italia headquarters in Rome Monday night. “I will make every sacrifice to reach this accord which the country wants and needs so much.”

The election was the first since the kickback scandals toppled the old governing elite in Italy. Projections based on early official returns suggested that the TV tycoon’s right-wing Freedom Alliance would win an absolute majority of 375 seats in the 630-member Chamber of Deputies or lower house. The broad left Progressives party led by ex-Communist Achille Occhetto would trail in a distant second with 210 seats. Most of the remaining seats would go to a small centrist alliance.

A separate forecast for state television gave Berlusconi’s bloc 325-340 seats against a distant 230-245 for the Progressives.

“Nobody could have expected a similar result just a few months ago,” a jubilant Berlusconi told reporters late Monday.

The moment was comparable to the choice Italians faced after the defeat of the Fascists in World War II. In 1948, voters rebuffed a Communist bid to run the country and instead chose the Christian Democrats, the start of more than four decades of dominance by the centrist pro-Catholic party.

A tired but clearly elated Berlusconi promised to “work in the interest of all Italians, and not just those who elected us, to see that our values of freedom, respect for the family, the free market, solidarity and tolerance become the basis for good government.”

The speech was televised live on Berlusconi’s Canale 5 network in a marathon all-night broadcast.

Stock prices on the Milan exchange rose strongly Monday and the lira rallied against the dollar amid growing expectations the right would win and form a stable government.

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