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Plis ša change... (known in the world as Il Cavaliere, "the Knight") proved to have more political fire in his belly  than  many had anticipated. After years, as he put it, "in the desert", the magnate presented a coalition to the 2001  electorate disconcertingly similar to that of 1994. This time it was called the Casa della Liberta' (House of Liberty) and all the main players were back, including Alleanza Nazionale and Bossi's league. Facing him as the Ulivo's representative was the telegenic former Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli. The election campaign was, more than ever, one of personal image in the American presidential style - and one of the nastiest on record. Keep it simple, Berlusconi might well have said, as his eternal suntan and grin were plastered over walls and TV sets, and delivered in election packages to people's homes.


His programme, which in essence seemed to be little more than to run Italy like a a giant corporation, obviously appealed to many Italians sick of the rhetoric and comparative inaction typical of other politicians and parties. Berlusconi emerged from the May 2001 national elections with an unexpectedly powerful absolute majority in both houses, Better still from his point of view, his separatist partners under Bossi, failed to reach the 4% minimum cut-off to take up se4ats in the Chamber of Deputies (although they hold the balance of seats in the Senate), while Alleanza Nazionale's vote also dropped off considerably. Berlusconi's Forza Italia party carried almost 30% of the vote - not since the halcyone days of the DC hegemony in the 1950s and '60s had a single Italian political party united such a chunk of the electorate behind it. A month and a half later, his coalition also swept to victory in  Sicily's regional elections.


There was an air of expectation mixed with trepidation in the wake of his steamroller victory. Just what could the magnificent magnate achieve in Italy with such a rare electoral gift? Bossi, made minister for devolution, made it clear from the outset he intended to push that issue hard. Berlusconi, the country's 59th prime minister since WWII, ordered his team to get to work, promising "few words and plenty of action".

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