A die is cast.
After almost 17 years as Berlusconi’s bridesmaid, Gianfranco Fini has finally decided that he has had enough. In a very stormy week, the unlikely cooperation between Fini and Berlusconi came formally to an end with Fini and his followers being expelled from the Popolo della Libertà and setting up their own group.
It looked like a catharsis, something like a make or break, Rubicon-crossing moment. But for all the high drama and the many calls I got on Thursday and Friday asking if this was going to be the end of Berlusconi, I think we are in for a long haul.
The apparent bone of contention is “legality”. The last straw was last week when Fini’s most vocal spokesman, Fabio Granata said that there had been government involvement in the mafia killing of prosecutor Paolo Borsellino in 1992. Granata is also deputy chair of the Parliamentary Anti-mafia committee which made the remark all the more telling. Berlusconi faithfuls demanded that Granata be disciplined and maybe suspended from the party even though the institutional mechanisms are not actually in place. But the fine print of party rules did not matter; Berlusconi had decided that he had had enough and the dissidents should be expelled. They too realised that the time had come to leave.
There have also been disagreements over some personalised pro-Berlusconi legislation; the intercept bill which would limit media freedom to publish court proceedings and investigaors’ possibilities of tapping phones and some proposals to reform the justice system.
Underlying the differences on specific issues is the Finiani’s contention that there is a total lack of pluralism in the PdL. Berlusconi has frequently said that there is no space for factions or subdivisions in the PdL and after the split, Fini’s thinktank “FareFuturo” carried an editorial calling Berlusconi’s move “Operation Baygon” (and insecticide) to “rid the party of an infestation of pluralism”. Fini himself accused Berlusconi of wanting to run the party as if he were CEO. Certainly Berlusconi has never appreciated discussion and debate far less, open disagreement. Even his court jester, Giuliano Ferrara, editor of one of the family papers, Il Foglio, compared Berlusconi to Kim Il Sung. Once again, for all his rhetorical anti-communism, Berlusconi acts like some communist party boss than the leader of a “liberal” western party which he purports to support. The other family papers have been unleashed on Fini calling him a traitor, a loser and corrupt because there are some unanswered questions about his brother-in-law’s house in Monte Carlo.
At first count, Fini seems to have the numbers to bring the government down. It looks as if he has 33 deputies and 10 senators. With 342 centre-right deputies until last week, it would take only 27 to go below the 316 necessary for a majority
This means that in controversial divisions, every single government deputy will have to turn up and vote in person. In Berlusconi’s last government, the practice of one deputy voting for a colleague was notorious. They were called “piano players” because they had to stretch to press the voting buttons on two or three separate desks. This is difficult now with digital voting but quite impossible with Fini in the chair.
In practice, this means that at the moment, the government does not have a reliable majority. One commentator has said that there is already a “virtual crisis” so that Berlusconi could go to President Napolitano and ask for a dissolution and elections in the autumn. Or he could wait until a controversial vote in the autumn, either on the federal issue or on justice where Fini would not support the government, and then ask for elections in spring. Berlusconi loves elections and is very good at campaigning. He also knows that Fini will need time to build up an organisation capable of making a mark in a national campaign. The centre-left is in a mess and tomorrow, Monday 2 August, the leaders of the two parties, Bersani and Di Pietro will meet to try and work out what they will do if they do have to face elections.
Or Berlusconi could try and rebuild a majority. In order to get back onto an even keel, he needs about a dozen new supporters so there is the presumption that he will have to go on a shopping spree before the next key vote sometime in September. Pierferdinando Casini and his UDC were approached last month; Casini said that of course he would not betray his electors but the promise of a ministry and the excuse of “saving the country from chaos during the economic crisis” might just persuade him. Francesco Rutelli once a Radical and then for a time leader of the Democrats of the Left has now moved so far into the centre that he is ripe for the picking. Then there is some lowhanging fruit in the PD in the religious centre. Berlusconi disappointed the AC Milan fans by not splashing out on new talent for the coming season but he will have to be more proactive with his party.
Both Casini and Rutelli have reiterated over the weekend that they will not join the government but there is that peculiar Italian institution “external support” that could be at least a stopgap solution for Berlusconi. A group or single deputies do not become part of the government but they vote for government measures “from the outside”.
The prospects are very interesting indeed. If Berlusconi does put together a new majority, there could be a government re-shuffle with the Fini ministers replaced by more faithful folk. Or, if Berlusconi asks for elections and Napolitano refuses, there could be a technical transition government; Tremonti is already straining at the leash and cannot wait to get into Palazzo Chigi. Or we could have elections. But whatever happens, we have entered a new and declining phase of “Berlusconi-ism”. But Fini has crossed a Rubicon even though he is unlikely to become emperor in the near future but he might just end up knifed by some of his erstwhile friends.