Saturday, December 18, 2010

Once more unto the swamp, my friends

Italy is full of significant dates but 14 December is not going to be one of them. The no confidence vote was hyped in both Italian and foreign media as being a crucial date for Berlusconi and for Italy but even before the result it was clear that the vote would resolve very little.
If he had lost the vote, today would certainly provide more interesting copy with endless speculation about whether Berlusconi could form a new government, how the coalition might be enlarged, who might be alternative leaders and when or if Napolitano would call early elections. All this will come, but not today. Instead we have very low key speculation on the same issues. Berlusconi is indeed trying to enlarge his coalition and continues his pre-Christmas shopping spree (the next blog will be on buying and selling parliamentarians), and early elections are still high on the agenda.
It is true that the government won on Tuesday but only by three votes which means that any two deputies can hold Berlusconi to ransom; this will happen sooner rather than later.
In order to pre-empt any moves by Berlusconi towards bringing in Pierferdinando Casini’s centrist UDC, Casini and Gianfranco Fini along with Francesco Rutelli formed a new group which they have called Polo della Nazione. At the moment they have around 100 deputies and while there is no chance that they could poll more that the Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, (PdL) in the Chamber at a general election, there are very good chances that they would win enough in the Senate to stymie a possible Berlusconi majority. That is, of course, if they manage to stay together. They are three oversized egos whose highest common factor is that they dislike Berlusconi and they call themselves “centrists” or “moderates”. But Fini is fiercely secular and supports living wills, civil unions and stem cell research. Casini comes from the old Christian Democratic party and presents himself as their successor while Rutelli started in the militantly anti-clerical Radical Party, then as mayor of Rome sidled up to the Vatican and is now the paladin of compromise with the Church. The three are odd bedfellows and even if they manage not to quarrel, the electorate is too savvy to be duped into thinking that they are a solid alliance. There are too many examples of marriages more or less of convenience winning fewer votes than their component parts from the Socialists and Communists in 1948 to the Socialists and Social Democrats in 1968 to the piles of small far left and far right parties over the last decade.
To emphasise where the substance of power lies, yesterday when the Pope received the new Italian ambassador to the Holy See, he thanked the Italian government for its defence of crucifixes in state schools. The day after the vote of confidence, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Angelo Bagnasco said that the Italians had declared themselves in favour of “governability” and the secretary of state, Bertone, blessed the government. Once again, the Vatican and the Catholic Church heirarchy in Italy have shown their realism and are backing what they think is the winning horse. Certainly not Casini and the UDC.
But while the Church seeks stability, Berlusconi closest ally is threatening some sort of revolt. Umberto Bossi and the Northern League (LN) have been fighting for different forms of devolution or federalism since they first went into government in 1994. In practice they have achieved very little for their almost nine years in government plus more than a year supporting a technocrat government. Now Bossi is demanding action on the implementation of last year’s fiscal federalism law (and another blog on that before Christmas). If progress is blocked by the opposition, then he has said he will demand elections.
So despite Tuesday’s trumpeted victory, the government is just as fragile as it was before the vote and the chances of a spring election just as high. The procedure is that there must be 60 days between dissolving Parliament and new elections so in order to make the date that many punters have been backing, 27 March, the real crunch must happen before the end of January. The Constitutional Court is due to pronounce in mid January on the “legitimate impediment” law which gives Berlusconi immunity from trials while in office so there will be many cues for a new crisis to begin.
With elections, there is a good possibility that Berlusconi would win a relative majority in the Chamber. His media resources and his own campaigning ability are still powerful weapons. The present electoral law would make the relative into an absolute majority. He might just take the Senate though that is less likely. But if he did, then he would be able to have himself elected President of the Republic in 2013 (it is Parliament plus representatives of the regions who elect the president), and retire safely up the hill to the Quirinale for another seven years by which time he would be 83; a nightmare scenario which would have many Italian claiming refugee status in San Marino.
In the meantime, unemployment rises, businesses downsize or fail, stringent cuts have provoked violent reactions as we saw on Tuesday here in Rome. So the alternative to a PdL-LN victory would not be very pretty either. A hung parliament; or the victory of a divided opposition. Not the best way of facing serious issues.
The answer to the question I posed last week, “who’s next?” was answered instantly by a correspondent who knows the country to a tee “why Berlusconi, of course”. For the moment, and for a fair time to come, he is right and journey through the swamp will be long, arduous and very messy.

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