Monday, July 05, 2010

Showdowns and curtains up (again)
After long silence, I am blogging once again; I hope for all the summer and beyond. There is much to talk about in Italian politics and the difficulty is to know where to start. The medium and longterm questions and analyses can wait until August when (perhaps) there will be less day-to-day drama. So the curtain of my new season goes up on what promises to be a very eventful week.
Berlusconi is back from his South American tour to face a mountain of immediate difficulties. It is going to be a tough week for him and his allies.
Some commentators talk of a possible government crisis but others like Gianfranco Pasquino argue that “Berlusconi wobbles but does not collapse”. Comparisons with the Roman empire abound but likening Berlusconi to Nero or Caligula is too easy; the crises are much more banal but at the same time much more serious. Like many contemporary prime ministers, Berlusconi is facing internal opposition which if not defeated or safely corraled, could bring the government down.
The loudest opposition comes from Gianfranco Fini, president of the Chamber of Deputies, leader of Forza Italia’s former ally Alleanza Nazionale and co-founder of the now single party, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL) and for almost 17 years, potential successor. Fini has always been his own man and has aimed at building a respectable and European Italian right and over the last year or so has made his disagreements with Berlusconi increasingly manifest. In April there was close to a public shouting match at a PdL executive meeting and there have been dozens of indirect clashes. Fini and his supporters argue that the PdL is stronger by having internal debates on topics like immigrant integration or federalism and devolution while Berlusconi wants the PdL to speak with a single voice and to avoid the eternal Italian problem of factions. On top of the genuine political differences, there are striking personal and character differences which add spice and colour to the story.
This week’s bone of contention is a bill to regulate telephone intercepts. The bill reduces police and magistrates’ powers to start and continue bugs; it also reduces media possibility to publish court proceedings and increases penalties for journalists and publishers who do publish. The opposition calls it “the gagging bill” and it has been criticised implicitly by US authorities from the ambassador to the organised crime investigators and explicitly by the OSCE. The government maintains that it safeguards the privacy of people under investigation. Berlusconi has evoked spectres of the Stasi saying that 7 million Italians “could be bugged” while his strongest and normally well-informed critic, the investigative journalist Marco Travaglio, says that “less than 20,000 are legally bugged”.
The bill covers a lot of ground from magistrates’ powers to freedom of the press and it could well be found to be unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court or President Napolitano might decide not to sign it. For his part Fini has merely said that the bill needs more thought and should be put off until September, after the summer recess. It is a not very subtle way of trying to kill the bill without a major clash which is why Berlusconi has insisted that the bill be debated and passed before the recess, possibly with a vote of confidence, the Italian version of the Westminster guillotine.
Berlusconi’s challenge is that Fini and his people stand up, vote and lose and that they then leave the PdL. In Berlusconi’s ideal scenario, Fini would then become an ex-pretender, his bolt well and truly shot.
Another major problem for the government though probably not going to come to a critical head this week, is the budget. The special austerity measure was unveiled almost two months ago when parts of it were even given an unoffical nod from the President. But apart from predictable criticism from the public service unions whose members will bear the brunt of the cuts, there has been concerted opposition from the regional governments including the centre-right ones whose support Berlusconi can ill-afford to lose. They too do not want to have to cut services and most dangerous for Berlusconi, the Northern League does not want to bring home the grand prize of federalism only to find that they have no money to implement it and have to raise regional taxes to maintain the same level of services. And while Berlusconi can just afford to lose Fini and maybe 25 deputies, he cannot lose the League deputies.
Then there are problems which are either minor or can be put off. There is a suggestion that a proposed constitutional amendment should give protection to ministers for alleged offences committed before they became ministers. The Alfano amendment already gives the prime minister immunity from prosecution while in office and the addition is drawing much flack. But that can wait.
What did not wait was the resignation of the latest cabinet minister, Berlusconi’s former employee, Aldo Brancher who blatantly used his new appointment to avoid turning up to his trial on the grounds that he was too busy with his new ministery. And this when his precise responsibility had not been defined. He went.
At the other end, Berlusconi has not replaced Scaloja, the minister who resigned in May because he discovered that “someone had paid for my house” (€900,000 btw). Berlusconi took over as interim minister for the ministry for Economic Development which regulates media licences and competition. For a man who has never known the meaning of “conflict of interests”, that too can wait.
For all the heralded high drama, the week is likely to end in the usual compromise as Fini has no desire to go out in a blaze of glory which is what a challenge would mean and Berlusconi himself has gone back on many of the most stringent cuts announced by his economics minister, Giulio Tremonti. Tremonti resigned once before and he might do so again; but better to lose a minister than the government.
So Berlusconi is weaker but he is still far from on the ropes.
Posted 5 July 2010

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