Rightists Win Historic Vote in Italy : Europe: Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi is front-runner for prime minister. His three-party alliance leads in both houses of Parliament. Corruption furor propels shift from centrist rule.


Two months after his debut as a politician, media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi led right-wing forces Monday to an unprecedented victory in Italian national elections, emerging as the front-runner to become prime minister.

In elections termed the most critical in more than four decades for a country convulsed by longstanding government corruption, Berlusconi’s restive, three-party alliance trounced traditionally dominant centrist parties and outdistanced once-favored leftists running as a movement of Progressives.

For Italy, installation of a right-wing government would mean moves toward a streamlined bureaucracy, intensified free-market economics with attendant labor unrest and, perhaps, evolution toward a political landscape sharply divided between the left and right. The rightist government could be destabilized by internal squabbles, but Italy’s democratic institutions are not at issue and neither are its commitments to NATO or the European Union.


Projections before dawn this morning gave the right substantial pluralities in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Italian Senate. Berlusconi’s alliance had about 46% nationwide for the Chamber and 40% or so for the Senate.

Next in both chambers were the leftists, led by the former Italian Communist Party, with 34% or so. Centrist parties, which have controlled all 52 Italian governments since World War II, were getting about 16%--less than half their traditional vote.

Final returns later today will show the extent of Berlusconi’s victory, which, one of his three nationwide television channels reported, may include an absolute majority in the Senate.

Berlusconi, 57, not only headed the national campaign of his new Forza Italia (Go, Italy) movement but also ran as a candidate, easily winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies from central Rome.

His allies also prospered in an election under new winner-take-all rules in which 80% of candidates were running for the first time. Among them, movie director Franco Zeffirelli won a Senate seat in Catania, Sicily. In Naples, Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of former dictator Benito Mussolini, was reelected to the lower house as candidate of a neo-fascist party allied with Berlusconi.

“The right has won,” glumly reported the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, a bulwark of Berlusconi foes who argued that he had joined politics principally to advance business interests that include the country’s largest advertising agency, a chain of supermarkets and Milan--Italy’s champion professional soccer team.

A self-made man who once worked as a singer on cruise ships, Berlusconi campaigned in Cold War terms, portraying himself as a crusader against communism. Early today, in what amounted to a victory speech, he told reporters from his TV networks that “a few months ago we started with great fear. There was a leftist team ready to take power. We were facing an uncertain future, moving toward a (totalitarian) regime.”

Berlusconi made clear that he expects President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to ask him to form a government. “We will know how to run a good government for all Italians, guaranteeing freedom for all,” he said.

Running with the neo-fascist National Alliance and the secessionist Northern League, Berlusconi promised Italians more jobs and lower taxes under a government wed to free-market economics, conservative Christian values, controlled immigration and law and order.

Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance, easily won election to Parliament on Monday, as did Umberto Bossi, founder of the League. Although both were aligned with Berlusconi for the election, Bossi insists that he will have nothing to do with the neo-fascists. Neither will he docilely follow Berlusconi’s lead.

“Berlusconi thinks we are his. We’re not,” Bossi said early today.

For the left, Monday’s returns were one more cruel blow in an always-a-bridesmaid search for power. Since World War II, Italian Communists--now social democratic and renamed the Party of the Democratic Left--had always finished second to the Christian Democrats. Monday, when the Christian Democrats slumped, the ex-Communists and allied parties running as Progressives finished second to Berlusconi’s new right.

“The Progressives are a force that came into the field for the first time. . . . We must stay there,” said party leader Achille Occhetto, who acknowledged the rightist victory but wondered whether campaign unity could survive the strains of forming a government.

In Milan, the stock market rose almost 4% Monday, its strongest showing of the year on double the average volume of the past two weeks. Analysts said investors were betting on a Berlusconi victory and a stable, right government to follow. The lira also strengthened Monday against both the dollar and the German mark in the closing hours of the two-day vote.

The outgoing Parliament had authorized the second day of voting to accommodate religiously observant members of Italy’s small Jewish community. Polls remained open until 10 p.m. Monday to allow Jews to vote after Passover celebration ended at sundown.

Berlusconi, who lives in Milan but was a candidate for Parliament from central Rome, was among the late voters at a school in the former Jewish ghetto. Tanned and polished, he drew applause from some passersby and one objection: “Fascist, out of the ghetto!” shouted one man.

In a middle-class nation where 40% of voters have traditionally stuck to the center, Berlusconi essentially filled a vacuum left by centrist parties, scarred in the country’s worst corruption scandal.

Centrist reformer Mario Segni was courted by both Berlusconi and Occhetto but decided to ally with the largest remnant of the Christian Democrats. Berlusconi wound up in alliance with the coarse Bossi and the polished Fini because the center wouldn’t have him.

Occhetto, meantime, had patiently assembled the leftist alliance with bedmates as diverse as anti-Mafia reformers, environmentalists and unabashed Marxists who defiantly broke from his party to form Refounded Communism.

Occhetto, who took leadership of the West’s largest Communist Party in 1988 just as communism was dying, changed the name to Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) in 1991 and marched to social democracy, taking all but the most extreme 15% of its members with him.

The PDS was relatively undamaged by the ongoing scandal known as Tangentopoli (Kickback City), in which most of the country’s leading companies paid millions of dollars in bribes and payoffs in exchange for public contracts.

Amid the scandal, the outgoing Parliament, hundreds of whose members face corruption probes once they leave office, added finishing touches to an electoral reform mandated by referendum last year. Under the new rules, three-quarters of the the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies and the 315-seat Senate were elected in winner-take-all votes. The rest were selected proportionately according to the overall votes of their parties.