Monday, February 09, 2009

Bonapartist Berlusconi and Eluana Englaro

Always the innovator, Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi is on the verge of realising his dream of becoming the country’s democratically sanctioned supreme leader, a double-breasted version of Hugo Chavez. With near-perfect timing, he has finessed President Napolitano, the Supreme Court and Parliament and is well on his way to take a grand slam of state powers.

He has used a highly sensitive and emotional ethical issue and the willing support of the Catholic Church as a weapon to vastly increase prime ministerial power. A very private tragedy has become not only a public drama but also the pretext for Berlusconi’s power play.

Eluana Englaro who is now 37 has been in a coma for 17 years after a car accident; for the last 12 years doctors have declared her coma “irreversible”. Her father, Beppino Englaro has argued that his daughter had expressed the wish not to be kept alive artificially and last year, the Milan Court of Appeal accepted this argument; in November, Italy’s Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation confirmed that Mr. Englaro could take his daughter off artificial life support systems as long as he and the physicians followed certain guidelines.

Not surprisingly, there has been much discussion on the rights and wrongs of the verdict with most of the Catholic heirarchy and some of the Catholic politicians vehemently opposing any interuption of therapy. Senior Roman Catholics have said that withholding treatment would be “murder” and last week Pope Benedict condemned “euthanasia” without mentioning the Englaro case.

Since he has begun to take an interest in the case, Berlusconi has again shown his profound lack of respect for the value of an individual by talking about Eluana Englaro not as a person but as a female “still capable of procreation” and with a “functioning menstrual cycle”.

As with the similar Schiavo case in the US there is a division between religious and secular points of view. But as in the Schiavo case, the ethical issues have become part of a bigger battle to increase executive power. With Teri Schiavo, her relations were divided over what to do while with Englaro, the family is united.

The minister in charge of health has made repeated statements that the judiciary had no right to decide the Englaro case and also ordered public hospitals not take Eluana Englaro. But until last Friday, Berlusconi had not given an opinion. Then on Friday Cabinet proposed a decree law which would oblige physicians to maintain nutritional life support systems to patients in a coma. President Napolitano wrote to the prime minister explaining why such a decree would be unconstitutional and why he would not sign it. Since then Berlusconi has mounted a fierce campaign against President, Constitution, Judiciary and implicitly against Parliament as well; all in the name of the “life” and “freedom” of Eluana Englaro. In practice, he is complaining that he is being prevented from exercising his people-given right to govern.

The Italian president is a mainly symbolic figure but he does have some residual powers which he can and sometimes does exercise. Last year Napolitano was criticised for immediately signing the law which give immunity from prosecution to Prime Minister Berlusconi and other senior figures while they are in office. This time he was much firmer and in two pages explained why the Englaro case could not be dealt with by executive order. Berlusconi feels that this oversteps presidential power and that if necessary he will change the constitution which he described as “pro-Soviet”.

For years now, Berlusconi has criticised the judiciary for being too independent; he and his ministers feel that the courts had no authority to pronounce on Eluana Englaro though in Italy, as in most countries, courts take daily decisions on what to do with minors or others who are legally or physically incapable.

More generally, there is a major reform before Parliament which will reduce the independence of prosecutors and increase executive control and another bill which reduces investigators’ possibility of using phone taps. Both measures decrease judicial power and increase the executive’s.

To overcome the President’s refusal to sign a decree law, Berlusconi is now rushing a bill through Parliament starting with the Senate today; it should become law by Thursday which may or may not be enough to keep Eluana Englaro on life support. But whatever the direct results for the Englaro family, both the Catholic Church and Prime Minister Berlusconi have greatly increased their grip on Italian politics.

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