The gauntlet has been thrown down, and with a vengeance. Gianfranco Fini has finally come out into the open from his guerrilla warfare and has declared an open war.
At the end of a passionate and expertly articulated speech, he came to the climax with a call to Silvio Berlusconi to resign. Fini succeeded once again in passing on the responsibility for early elections and potential chaos to Berlusconi who only last week challenged Fini to come out into the open.
As ever in Italian politics, nothing is simple. Fini and the other people of his group made it clear that they are firmly within the centre-right, that they do not want early elections but that this government has gone beyond its best by date. Fini’s solution is that Berlusconi should resign and President Napolitano should call all the parties to the Quirinale and form a new centre-right government, almost certainly including the centrist UDC led by Pierferdinando Casini, a former Berlusconi ally and himself a former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies like Fini.
There would be no guarantee that the new government would have Berlusconi as prime minister and certainly Fini pulled few punches in his attacks on Berlusconi both for his private life but more importantly for his public accomplishment. Making fun of Berlusconi’s mantra that his is “un governo del fare” (a government that gets things done), Fini said it was “un governo del fare finta” (a government that fakes everything) adding that “the government is off course and adrift”.
If Berlusconi does not accept the challenge and stays where he is, Fini has said that his ministers will withdraw from the government. Berlusconi would then find it very difficult to stay put. He could replace Fini’s four (a cabinet minister, a deputy minister and two undersecretaries) and limp on. Fini said that his group, Futuro e Libertà would support measures that were part of the government programme so they would not bring the government down immediately but whatever he does, Berlusconi is a lame duck. He has little or no control over special legislation to help him out of the criminal charges that he is facing and the 14 December deadline is rapidly approaching. This is the day that the Constitutional Court will pronounce on whether the present immunity law is constitutional.
Legality was one of the points that Fini hammered on in his speech “without legality, there is no freedom” and again, “there is a culture of tolerance of arbitrariness and lack of fairness where the powerful dominate the weak”.
It was a speech worthy of any opposition, in favour of human rights and equality between north and south, men and women, black and white, hetero- and homosexual, a passage which brought huge cheers from the audience, perhaps surprising in a speech which was explicitly right wing and to a public which declares itself on the centre-right.
The latest sex scandal, “Rubygate”, was never mentioned by name but Fini referred to it when he lamented the collapse of part of Pompei yesterday and “other events which present Italy in a negative light”. And again when he quoted the Pope (emphasising three times that he was speaking “secularly”) who said that the rubbish is “not just in the streets of Naples but in people’s consciences”.
Apart from Berlusconi, Fini’s other target was Umberto Bossi’s Northern League who he accused of being the “most backward party in Europe”, strong words for a coalition ally. For Fini, the League was leading Berlusconi’s PdL.
That he is a man of the right was clear from the beginning when he spoke of the “nation” which he defined as “community, and the need for a clear national identity (there was a right wing mention of gens italica). After the speech the national anthem was palyed; there were some positive references to the church but Fini has never hidden his own secularity. Despite using the word “destra” or “centro-destra” most of the substance of the speech would have gone down well on the centre-left. There was plenty of talk about looking after the weaker members of society.
It was, explicitly, a challenge for the next elections whether they are in 2013 or next spring, or, just possibly, sooner. After 17 years of being Berlusconi’s presumed successor (it is almost exactly 17 years since Berlusconi endorsed Fini’s candidacy for the mayor of Rome), Fini has said in practice, “if you’re not going to retire quietly and give me the succession, I will fight you for it”. The only question is why it has taken him so long – he and Berlusconi have been in power for eight years out of the last ten.
And now the ball is firmly in Berlusconi’s court.