It was called the Italian Revolution. In the early 1990s, dozens of politicians and their business allies were tossed into jail by anti-corruption prosecutors. Political parties that had dominated the country's revolving-door governments for 50 years crumbled. Voters demanded -- and got -- electoral reforms designed to ensure relatively stable governments.
Less than a decade and a half later, the revolution is over. A steady counterattack over the past four years by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's wealthy and assertive prime minister, has nullified many of the laws that made such prosecutions possible. In one recent stroke, Berlusconi's coalition in Parliament this month erased electoral rules that grew out of the upheaval of the '90s and that many voters once hoped would reduce government shakiness and sleaze.
Many of Berlusconi's critics see symptoms of a reborn corrupt and inefficient state in a recent upsurge of organized crime and in scandals that have rocked the country's business sector.
Berlusconi himself has done well under the changes. He has declared that he entered politics to protect his business interests from antitrust moves and himself from prosecution for corruption. He once said: "If I, taking care of everyone's interests, also take care of my own, you can't talk about a conflict of interest."
"It is remarkable that, in serving his own interests, Berlusconi has had the effect of reversing the entire revolution," said Erik Jones, a professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center. "He may be giving away big achievements for the narrowest of reasons."
Giovanni Sartori, a law professor and frequent critic of Berlusconi's government, said: "Berlusconi has governed strictly from a cost-benefit analysis of how he can serve himself. By his calculation, his job showed results."
Opponents call the new electoral ordinance a prime example of a head of government tailoring laws to his own needs. There was no wide public demand for such a change; it was a Berlusconi initiative, announced six months before national elections scheduled for April.
"This is not about reform," Sartori said. "This is about expediency."
The rules restore Italy to a system of proportional voting in which parties gain seats in Parliament according to the percentage of votes they win nationwide. Voters discarded a similar system by referendum in 1993, after a long period in which Italian governments turned over at a rate averaging more than once a year.
Under the system adopted 12 years ago, 75 percent of seats were contested in winner-take-all districts, the rest by proportional vote. The referendum marked the end of the so-called First Republic, the designation for Italy's post-World War II years.
Berlusconi was elected under the new system twice -- in 1994 and again in 2001. In between, a coalition of Communists, former Communists, Christian Democrats and others took power and remained there for five years.
Analysts say Berlusconi will likely lose the upcoming election to former prime minister Romano Prodi, but that a proportional system will reduce the size of his loss.
Critics go further, saying the possible expansion in the number of small parties that could win seats will make it difficult to build and maintain future governing majorities.
At the time of the vote on Berlusconi's electoral law, Mario Segni, who promoted the 1993 referendum, predicted: "If this measure passes, it will mean that the will of the Italian people counts for nothing. We will soon have unstable governments. Each party will feel authorized to make and unmake governments well beyond the will of the voters."
The reason for Berlusconi's present bout of unpopularity, analysts say, is the sorry state of Italy's economy. It has been in recession for most of the past 12 months. Inflation has reduced purchasing power and depressed consumer spending. International manufacturing competition has made China a whipping boy for Italy's problems.
Voters were unfazed by the conflict of interest inherent in a prime minister who controls three television networks, publishing and advertising firms, retail outlets and a major soccer club. One example: When the government passed a measure designed to reduce tax burdens on professional soccer in Italy, which is beset by ever-higher player salaries and reduced television income, it benefited AC Milan, Berlusconi's team.
The public also was unperturbed by Berlusconi's numerous public displays of eccentricity. Among them: likening a German critic in the European Parliament to a Nazi; inviting U.S. investors to Italy on the grounds that the country possesses beautiful secretaries; and making an obscene gesture during a photo shoot with foreign leaders. Plastic surgery in 2003 and a hair transplant momentarily endeared him to a country obsessed with the appearance of physical well-being.
But over the past two years, Berlusconi's coalition has fared poorly in European parliamentary elections and regional votes. "Italians have come to believe Berlusconi's time has passed," Sartori said.
The electoral law is only the latest reversal of the changes wrought in the early 1990s. Berlusconi's parliamentary coalition also passed a measure to decriminalize false accounting. In September, a judge ruled that because of the measure, charges against Berlusconi for alleged bogus bookkeeping dating to 1989 were no longer valid.
He had been charged with transferring money to Bettino Craxi, then the prime minister, through an offshore account. Berlusconi's attorney, Gaetano Pecorella, said of the case's dismissal that "it was the expected verdict. The court applied the new law, which says that if false bookkeeping causes no important harm, it should not be punished."
Berlusconi's government also passed a law making it difficult for investigators to gather information from foreign governments on financial dealings abroad. Many of the probes of his businesses have extended beyond Italy's shores.
Charges against him for allegedly bribing a judge in the 1980s to get control of a food conglomerate were dismissed, but a longtime associate, former defense minister Cesare Previti, was convicted. His case is on appeal.
Berlusconi now intends to have a bill passed that would reduce the statute of limitations on the charge and free Previti from a possible 11-year sentence. Parliament plans to take up the so-called Save Previti bill this fall. A study by Italy's top appeals court estimates that 88 percent of all pending corruption and fraud cases would be thrown out if the bill passes.
Berlusconi accused prosecutors and judges of going after Previti for political reasons. "The aim of these judges is not to establish justice, but instead to strike at those who have a mandate to rule Italy," Berlusconi said after Previti's 2003 sentencing.
On Wednesday, he denied that the new laws were for his own advantage. "Not only are these wholly legitimate laws, but even if they weren't, they would number three or four out of 400 and therefore less than 1 percent," he told reporters.
Berlusconi said he would not give up his blunt political style. "I try not to be politically correct, or else I'll become the same as everyone else," he said.