Taking a vote on Fininvest’s future

ROME — The future of Fininvest, Europe’s second-largest media conglom, depends in large measure on what happens to Silvio Berlusconi March 28. That’s when national election ballots are counted and the country finds out if the TV tycoon becomes a member of Parliament — and how much clout he would carry there.

Berlusconi has been running a high-profile campaign as a candidate for the fledgling political party Forza Italia. Pre-election polls vary wildly, but suggest that none of the parties in the race will earn a large enough parliamentary majority to govern the country solo after the vote.

But even if Forza Italia fizzles at the ballot box, Berlusconi won’t return to the helm of Fininvest. The mogul-turned-politico says he will stay in politics.

The conservative Forza Italia will either join a center-right coalition as a junior partner or, if the progressive-left predominates, Berlusconi and his allies will be in the opposition.

The left, particularly the ex-Communists (now renamed the Democratic Left), has made no secret of its desire to pare down Fininvest’s media holdings, which include three private national networks and the country’s largest publishing house.

However, if the conservative coalition (Forza Italia, the Lombard League and the neo-Fascist National Alliance) wins, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia still won’t be in a position to dictate policy. The alliance that binds the three groups was forged strictly to ensure a chance of winning enough votes to gain a parliamentary majority enabling it to govern after the elections.

Political opponents have complained about the conflict of interest that could arise if the Forza Italia leader is called on to legislate on media- or business-related issues.

Win or lose, there’s no talk of Berlusconi selling Fininvest (of which he’s the sole owner) due to incompatibility with his political career. But he might sell off part of the giant company in order to reduce its $ 2.2 billion debt.

A reform of Italy’s broadcasting legislation is on the agenda of the new government, whether it’s progressive or conservative.

Political consensus has it that both RAI and Berlusconi should each get rid of a web. Both broadcasters are heavily indebted; both probably could benefit from renewed competition and a healthier market. Clearly Berlusconi would like to be in a position to influence political debate on the subject rather than be forced to sell a network at a loss.

Political advantage

And Fininvest itself would enjoy considerable benefits were Berlusconi to sit in parliament — or in the cabinet. Fininvest is part of a consortium bidding to run the country’s second cellular phone network. And the TV tycoon would be in an ideal position to pick off some of the $ 40 billion worth of state-owned assets that the government intends to sell off over the next few years: The Italian phone company Stet is the next in line to be privatized.

Finally, with Berlusconi in government, Fininvest’s relationship with its creditor banks probably would become much cozier. Banks would probably be liberal in authorizing new loans that would enable Fininvest to resume the frenetic expansion it enjoyed during the mid-1980s.

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