“Maybe this time…”
Even in these dog days of July there is febrile concern about the stability of the government and by implication the political architecture of the last 16 years. If Berlusconi goes as prime minister, the argument goes, Berlusconi-ism will collapse too and maybe this time, Italy will have sound government. There is talk of a “transitional government” even by right wing papers like Il Tempo which last week carried a front page article comparing the virtues of economics minister Giulio Tremonti and Bank of Italy president, Mario Draghi as possible successors.
Berlusconi’s most faithful mastiff, the editor of Il Giornale, one of the family papers, Vittorio Feltri also reckons that the government has a short best-by date on it though he is looking at a reshuffle in which Berlusconi re-establishes complete control over the party by getting rid of Fini and his people and maybe bringing in Pierferdinando Casini’s post-Christian Democrat UDC.
The Fini opposition has become more vocal as the suggestion grows that parts of the government had a hand in the murder of the anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino in 1992. One of the supergrasses maintains that the foundation of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was the result of negotiations with Provenzano and Riina’s mafia. Last week in Palermo, the Finiano deputy, Fabio Granata said that “there are parts of the government who are obstructing investigations on the Via D’Amelio attack” (where Borsellino and his escorts were killed). Rather than being asked to expand, Granata risks being disciplined by his own party and maybe expelled. Fini himself has repeatedly address the problem of “legality” and is being compared to the Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer who raised the issue of “the moral question” in the ‘70s.
The Popolo della Libertà is beginning to look like Blair’s early New Labour where everyone was supposed to be “on message”. With Blair before ’97 it was a question of winning the election but today despite his huge majority in parliament, Berlusconi brooks no internal opposition and considers any criticism a form of lèse majesté.
Certainly the structure is creaking very audibly. The two bills which have to pass before the recess are creating serious fissures in the country. The austerity measure is before Parliament this week and the intercept bill might get through the Chamber before deputies go to the seaside. I looked at them a fortnight ago and will have another go when the huffing and puffing is over (if one article of the intercept bill passes, then I might have to stop this blog – but more on that later, if it passes). Denis Verdini, the PdL coordinator and others accused of being part of the secret lobby dubbed “P3” might have to step down following the stream of resignations over the last few months. The opposition Il Fatto talks openly of “the last days of Berlusconi”.
But Fini’s supporters are not enough to bring the government down; Berlusconi is reported to have said that “Fini can fight a guerriglia war but not a pitched battle” and he is right. The bills will most likely be passed with votes of confidence which the courtier-parliamentarians cannot betray. And even if Verdini’s head rolls, the boss (or “sultan” as he is now frequently called) is still firmly in control of the party, parliament and a good part of the media so his time has probably not yet come.
Italy, though, seems to have physiological cycles and we are definitely coming to the end of one, if only because of Berlusconi’s age.
Over the 20th century, Italy has gone through something approaching a cultural and political revolution every generation or every 20 or so years. There have always been internal reasons for the revolutions but the external stimuli have usually been a major international event which triggered the internal change. Each time, the revolutionaries felt they were refounding Italy and presumed that “maybe this time” the country would realise its true potential, morally, politically and economically. All countries change, especially under the pressure of war or massive economic change; Italy’s changes have almost never been reforms, they have been revolutions with millenarist and utopian plans. Like Sally Bowles in “Cabaret”, they sing “Maybe this time” and like Sally Bowles, it always turns out to be the wrong man.
The first world war destroyed most of Italy’s economy and much of its social cohesion; even though Italy came out of the war on the winning side and with increased territory, the result was presented as “the mutilated victory”. There was serious social strife for four years until Mussolini took over with the promise of renewing the country and giving Italy its rightful position in the world.
Twenty three years later, Italy was politically, militarily and economically bankrupt and once again seriously divided. The anti-fascist resistance provided the necessary underpinning to support the new Italy. The new Italy was a republic and a democracy and would realise all the dreams of those who had fought fascism and nazism.
In 1968-69, the pressures were hardly as violent as in 1918 or 1945 and the devastation was obviously minimal compared to the world wars, but the hopes of the “sessantottini” were hardly less than in the previous changes. The trigger was France’s ’68 and the US anti-war movement but the underlying reasons were a profound dissatisfaction by large sections of mostly young, mostly left-wing Italians in the clientelistic, spoils sharing Christian Democrat and Socialist governments. They also wanted to share in the social freedoms that the rest of western Europe were developing.
The most recent revolution in 1991-94 cost even less blood (in Italy at least); this one was triggered externally by the fall of the Berlin wall which removed the institutional prejudice against the Communist Party. For the first time in 40 years, Italian government could alternate between left and right. The USSR and the PCI no longer existed so a non-communist left could form and even take power. Internally, Italy’s major debt had to be faced if Italy was to join the single European currency. That debt had been greatly increased by the massive corruption which marked the previous decade. The tangentopoli and mani pulite prosecutions were the opportunity for Italians to rebel and this time, they felt that they could have another start, a clean beginning. Instead, the result was Berlusconi who has dominated the past decade and a half both in power and opposition and certainly not under the aegis of legality.
Today we are moving probably slowly, towards some sort of endgame but it is far from clear what the trigger will be or what sort of utopian dream will come out of the collapse.
The second half of this blog come from a paper I gave at the Political Science Association in Edinburgh in March; anyone who wants to see more, should go to "Dogs that bark in the night" Section 4. I would also like to thank Umut Korkut, Jim Newell, Maurizio Carbone and the other colleagues who made very useful comments then.
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