The Italian election has dealt the international left a severe setback. Although the gap between the vote percentages of the center-right coalition (Casa della Liberia) and the center-left (Ulivo) was fairly small—especially if the hard-core communists (the Rifondazione Communista, who campaigned as the “left wing of the center-left”) are factored in—because of proportional representation, Silvio Berlusconi’s “Liberty House” will hold 177 seats in the Senate (as opposed to 128 for the “Olive”) and 368 seats in the Camera dei Deputati (as opposed to the center-left’s 242).

The election is highly significant for several reasons: first, because the international left made a concerted effort to demonize Berlusconi in the closing days of the campaign; second, because Italian leftists did everything they could to Clintonize the campaign and, even after the election, to put a kind of Florida spin on their defeat; third, and most importantly, because Berlusconi did not run on a softcore Reagan-Thatcherite platform but took strong ideological stands on several explosive issues that would make English Tories and American Republicans sick to their stomachs. Imagine Pat Buchanan running in a coalition with supporters of the League of the South, the Libertarian Party, and the Wanderer.

The attacks on Berlusconi were almost astonishing. From all over Europe, leftist politicians teamed up with Eurotrash journalists to paint a portrait of a complete monster—part Rupert Murdoch (a cynical media mogul buying an election), part Jörg Haider (a far-right racist bigot). In the closing days of the campaign, Italy’s “ugly beautiful people” (as Leopold Tyrmand used to call America’s lefty glams) were out in force. Roberto Benigni—whose comic tribute to the holocaust. La Vita e Bella, was condemned for insensitivity and antisemitism—did his best to recover respectability by attacking Berlusconi. Going on tax-supported government television, the untalented comic clowned, mugged, and hissed his contempt for this threat to Italian civilization.

The lies begin with the description of the two coalitions. Berlusconi’s Casa della Liberia is genuinely “center-right,” comprising moderate ex-Christian Democrats, proponents of privatization, decentralists from the Lega Nord, and the mostly Catholic nationalists of Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (formerly the Movimento Sociale Italiano, formerly the Partito Fascista); the Ulivo, by contrast, consists of hard-core communists who changed their name, flanked by revisionist Marxists and ultra-hard-core Stalinists of the Rifondazione Communista party. In today’s world, a Trotsky-Stalin coalition is moderate and respectable, while a Bush-Buchanan tandem would be extremist.

In Italy on the day of the election, I knew that something was up when the TV stations announced that they would delay their coverage for an hour because of various complications, and would not even talk about the exit polling. Although Berlusconi had held a commanding lead in early April, the media attack had resulted in a dead heat with Rutelli, a good-looking nobody on whom the communists were staking everything. Sergio Romano had been saying that the results would be so close as to make forming a government difficult, but the looks on the faces of the experts on Rai Uno told a different story. As they began to record the early returns, the pundits betrayed an air of desperation.

The spin began. The real significance was the poor turnout for the Lega, which could spell trouble for the coalition; the long lines and complaints of voters in Rome and Milan, which hinted at fundamental inequities in the system (never mind that the communists control the system); the impact of the Rifondazione communists’ decision to run a separate campaign (the communist Bertinotti was assigned the Ralph Nader part in the drama), which split the vote and handed Berlusconi his victory.

Most of these distractions were obvious red herrings. Of course, the Lega‘s failure should have been predicted. The last time around, Berlusconi’s coalition defeated the left with the strong support of the Lega Nord (about ten percent of the vote). After Umberto Bossi was given more than he could really have dreamed of having, the North Italian leader bolted the coalition and turned his country over to the tender mercies of the left. “Padanian” voters cannot be blamed for backing Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party this time around: A few more years of communism could finish Italy off.

The real significance, of course, is that the left lost the election, and the right won—not the warmed-over Thatcherites and soft-core Reagan followers, but a rightist coalition that announced its intentions of controlling immigration, undoing the leftist “reform” programs that are destroying Italian education, decentralizing the political system, and rehabilitating the economy.

Berlusconi’s speeches in the closing days of the campaign were music to ears that had been deafened by the capitalist-socialist platitudes of American campaigns. In one televised speech, he defended the free market, while declaring that he was not a disciple of Anglo-Saxon liberalism. Individuals mattered, he said, but only in the context of the family, the community, the nation. It is, of course, essential to defend individual economic freedom from the predations of government bureaucracy, but it is just as important to defend the family and to protect the autonomy of local and regional communities—just as the nation has to be protected from globalization.

How seriously are we to take these philosophical professions? Berlusconi was, after all, a friend and backer of the crooked socialist Bettino Craxi; he made much of his vast fortune through suspect dealings with the political system; and the soft pornography purveyed by his television empire gives little evidence of the Christian social thought espoused in his speeches. Still, it is significant to have a prime minister of a major country publicly endorse the best elements of both free-enterprise liberalism and Catholic subsidiarity.

Now it is up to Berlusconi. If he really is a mere Thatcherite, he will behave like an American Republican by giving good speeches while selling his country out to the international forces that wish to devour it. If he is the Italian patriot he claims to be—if he makes even a little progress toward carrying out his program—the Italians will be the luckiest nation in the Western world.