Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who can follow this act? Who will follow it?

We all know that Silvio Berlusconi is immortal according to his doctor or at the very least that he is good for 120 years as he told Vladimir Putin recently. But just in case he is not prime minister for the next 46 years and especially if he is not prime minister after Tuesday’s vote of no confidence, as I promised on Friday, now is a good time to look at possible successors.
If he were to step down, there are two close associates who might take over. The first is Gianni Letta, a year older than Berlusconi, former editor of the right wing Roman paper Il Tempo who started working for Berlusconi in 1987. For the last 16 years he has been Berlusconi’s shadow, undersecretary to the Council of Ministers (the cabinet) when Berlusconi was prime minister, close advisor in opposition. He avoids the limelight and is very much at home on both sides of the Tiber. Over the last few months he only came to the fore when there was bad news to break. If he did take over, it would be as an interim PM, a gentle move towards a more normal political leader. His nephew, Enrico Letta is a senior member of the opposition Democratic Party.
More likely to be in conflict with his former boss would be the economics and finance minister, Giulio Tremonti loved by the Northern League and respected by most of his own party and the European institutions. He was both a tax accountantcy specialist close to Berlusconi and an academic but over the last 16 years has built up a reputation of independence which makes him a potential successor.
For a time, there was a very small possibility that the leader of the centrist Christian Democrat movement the UDC, Pierferdinando Casini might be a candidate. He is a former ally of Berlusconi and former speaker of the Chamber who Berlusconi has been trying to win back for the last three months but today he seems set to vote against the government on Tuesday and is trying to put together a centrist coalition with Francesco Rutelli and Gianfranco Fini.
Another outsider could be interior minister Roberto Maroni, the polite, good cop face of the Northern League but he would have a hard time persuading even people on the right that his version of the LN was different from Umberto Bossi racist, separatist and uncouth version.
Finally, there is always the dynastic option. Granted Italy is a republic but there are plenty of republics from North Korea to the United States where power moves through blood or marriage. Berlusconi’s daughter, Marina, is 44 and head for the family holding company, Fininvest. Over the summer she gave interviews on politics and the family papers gave her full coverage. Not surprisingly she denies that she would be going into politics.
On the left, obviously the natural candidate should be Pierlugi Bersani, the Democratic Party (PD) secretary who yesterday once again staked his claim as the leader of a future centre left coalition. There was a huge anti-Berlusconi demo in Piazza S. Giovanni addressed by Bersani alone. If anything it was more about Bersani and the PD showing that they really are the opposition leaders than the usual anti-B demo.
The problem is of course that for all his very real qualities, Bersani is still perceived as Massimo D’Alema’s man and apart from his diehard supporters, for most of the centre-left, D’Alema has been the kiss of death since he actively allowed Prodi’s downfall in 1998. And then since the introduction of primaries, first for Prodi himself and the Democrats of the Left in 2005 and then for Walter Veltroni in 2007, centre-left voters have not always followed the party line.
If there are elections next spring and assuming that there are primaries beforehand, the most likely winner is 52 year old Nichi Vendola, not Bersani. Unlike Bersani, Vendola is able to conjure up a dream, an essential quality for a winning politician. He also has practical experience as president of the Apulia region where he has governed effectively since 2005. In 2009, he founded his own party Sinistra, ecologia, libertà (“freedom” is the catchword across the whole spectrum). He is gay, Catholic and on the radical left; he is also a very strong speaker with an excellent presence and probably most important, untainted with the old political class even though he has been an activist since he was 14.
Age has become an issue since the 35 year old mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi said last month that the old leadership should be scrapped and traded in. Bersani could not do any better than saying I demand respect. Renzi is certainly very pushy but since he paid a private visit to Berlusconi, it is not quite clear in which direction he is pushing.
The mayor of Turin, Sergio Chiamparino, 62, is also another potential leader but definitely an outsider. Another outsider or possible future candidate is the president of the province of Rome, Nicola Zingaretti, 45, former MEP and secretary of the party’s international section. He has managed to install free wi-fi in areas throughout the province, no mean feat, has charm and works Facebook and the new media well.
Then of course there is the new right, or as they would prefer, the new centre that has its own potential leaders. There have been preliminary moves to form a “third pole” with Fini, Casini and former Radical and PD mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli but the differences between them and their lack of mass support mean that there is no great probability of the alliance taking off successfully. Only if Fini is able to take over as the leader of most of the centre-right would he stand a chance. He played the role of successor to Berlusconi until April, now he has to go it alone, a very difficult task.
An outsider on the right is another mayor, Rome’s present incumbent, Gianni Alemanno. Once on the far right, very ambitious, he might have been aiming at some bid when his mandate ends in 2012 but for the moment he is facing a serious of accusations of helping too many friends and relations find jobs in the city administration.
Outside the present political spectrum are three names worth mentioning: Ferrari chief, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the president of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi and Mario Monti, former European commissioner. The first has said that he is “prepared to sacrifice himself for the country” a sure preamble to putting his hat in the ring. And he has set up a thinktank Italia Futura, another precurser to a political party. He too would have a conflict of interest but after Berlusconi, his would be trifling. He is biding his time and waiting for the right moment to come along.
The other two have said very explicitly that they do not want to go into politics but with the precedent of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi who moved very successfully from the Bank of Italy to first Palazzo Chigi, then the ministry of economics and then the Quirinal, there are many who would like to see a clean and competent economist with practical experience take over. Draghi would probably prefer the ECB to Palazzo Chigi and his chances are good.
Monti was a much respected commissioner appointed by Berlusconi and then renewed by D’Alema, and is a confirmed European. He has returned to academe but for both him and Draghi, the siren song of “saving one’s country” would be hard to resist if the situation worsens dramatically over the next few months.
As for the next two days, all the talk is of Berlusconi’s shopping spree and he might just make it to a majority. But if he does, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. I will try and deal with that aspect of the crisis tomorrow.

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