Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To vote or not to vote
In the mid-90s I used to teach a course on Italian politics every two years in the spring and from ’92 to ’96 the powers that were very kindly gave me a general election to illustrate my course with. After a decade of stability, we seem to be returning to the more usual confusion and continuous jockeying for small slices of power.
There is a pretty good chance that Italians will go to the polls again next spring and there is a small chance that it might even be as soon as November (the republic has never had an autumn election so it’s unlikely, but Umberto Bossi is pressing for it and Berlusconi loves campaigning and is very good at it).
The drama, as ever in politics, is part issues and part personal. Except that in Berlusconi’s Italy, most issues are also personal so once again, despite a major economic crisis and plenty of other only slightly less pressing problems, we are still talking about one man and his conflicts of interest.
The immediate bones of contention, as most of you know already, is the split between Berlusconi and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini. Initially Fini was joined by 33 deputies who formed a new group (not “party”) called Futuro e Libertà (Fli) and was then followed by Chiara Moroni, the youngest deputy in the Chamber but highly symbolic in the present context as she is the daughter of a man who committed suicide after being accused of corruption in the first “Clean Hands” investigation in the early ‘90s. She might have been expected to defend alleged corruptors but she supports Fini in his campaign for “legality”.
The division where the 34 Finiani declared themselves was a vote of no confidence on the PdL minister, Giacomo Caliendo, accused of being part of the new secret masonic lodge, the so-called P3. Di Pietro tabled the motion which was supported by his group, Italia dei Valori (IdV) and the Democratic Party (PD) and rejected by 299 members of the government a long way short of the 316 majority. Fini’s people abstained and the motion was defeated but since last week, it is clear that the PdL no longer commands an absolute majority.
That leaves three possibilities: immediate elections (November), a transitional “technocratic” government, and finally, a limping lame duck continuation of the present government.
The first is supported by Bossi and the Northern League who reckon they would make a killing in any elections at the moment. The former centre-left mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari reckoned dismally that the Lega would win 50% of the vote north of the Appenines. This is probably Cacciari playing an exaggerated Cassandra, but she was right after all; the Lega will do well because it manages to present itself as an anti-system party at the same time as being in power; they have good local organisation and a clear programme. I’ll do a blog on their biggest issue “federalism” next month. Di Pietro too would be happy to move to the hustings because IdV is the only intransigent and clear opposition to Berlusconi and would certainly take a good portion of the disgruntled PD voters. Naturally Berlusconi is raring to go and has just launched a pre-election campaign to that Italians will “understand what the government has achieved”. No peace from politics even in August.
An interim government would bring back echos of Dini in 1995 but too much has changed since then for there to be a repetition with Tremonti playing Dini’s. First of all there is a different president and the choice between elections and a new government is the president’s choice, not the prime minister’s. Oscar Luigi Scalfaro is a tough and honest old fashioned Piedmontese Christian Democrat. As president he refused to allow Cesare Previti to become minister of Justice – Previti was under investigation for corruption and was later convicted. When the Lega withdrew support for Berlusconi’s government, Scalfaro insisted on offering Berlusconi’s finance minister Lamberto Dini the possibility of forming an interim government, which he did. The present president, Giorgio Napolitano is not made of the same stuff. He prefers to mediate behind the scenes rather than stand up to Berlusconi who has himself learnt much over the last 16 years. He knows that if he refused a request for early elections “Berlusconi would go nuclear” as a diplomat friend said last week. The nuclear option would mean unleashing all his media – the five television channels (three Mediaset and two RAI) and the two newspapers which are presently savaging Fini (Il Giornale and Libero but more of that next week). Only the PD is really in favour of this option as they are divided and disorganised and too pusillanimous to fight an election at the moment. But the “transitional government” is hardly an option as it would mean them getting into bed with Tremonti who they have constantly attacked for his austerity budget which would make them look very inconsistent. And that presupposes that Tremonti would be willing to play Dini’s 1995 role.
The final option would be for the present government to carry on until there is another crunch time with Fini. Government spokesmen say they will fight on the economy, the South, federalism and justice.
The last two are the most controversial. Fini has always been against allowing too much devolution or giving too much power to the Lega. Justice includes a constitutional amendment to give immunity to the prime minister, putting a best-by date on criminal trials; three, two and one year for the three different levels, but without changing procedure. In practice all but the simplest trials would be dropped. They also want to reform the magistrature’s self-governing body, the High Council of the Magistrature and reduce its powers. The PdL would also like to see the bill which limits phone taps passed without being watered down. Each one of these issues could push Fli to vote against the government but at the moment at least, they are not ready to fight an election.

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