Before polls closed this morning, Prime Minister Berlusconi admitted to the visiting Bibi Netanyahu that Italy’s nuclear energy programme was over and that he should concentrate on renewables. There is another nuclear option available, though, but not to Berlusconi; if his essential ally, Umberto Bossi decides to withdraw the Northern League’s support at their annual rally at Pontida on Sunday, the effect would be the same as a bomb on the government. For the moment, one of their ministers, Roberto Calderoli said that they’ll use Pontida to tell Berlusconi what they want from the government for the 22 June vote of confidence.
The League has been increasingly unhappy with their position in the government and over the last few days their leaders have been trying to ride grassroots discontent. There are real issue differences which have nothing to do with Berlusconi personally. The most important is the disagreement with Tremonti over his economic austerity programme which the League reckons is far too stringent. Until recently, it looked as if Tremonti was the darling of the League but at the moment, the shine is off. Then there is the war in Libya which the League was always unhappy about and despite the almost daily declarations that “Qaddaffi’s time is up”, the war, its cost in money and in immigrants and refugees continues to mount up. Finally it is the perceived lack of control on irregular migrants that the League complains about.
Then there is the implicit but never voiced criticism of Berlusconi himself as he appears to be less and less in control of the situation, so Bossi and the League want to distance themselves.
Berlusconi’s admission to the Israeli prime minister was the admission of what he hopes is a tactical defeat in order to avoid the total defeat of a collapsed government. He still has a majority in Parliament but it is clear that he does not have one in the country.
For the last two days, Italians voted four referendums. The holy grail was a quorum of 50%+1 of the electorate. In the event, all four had a turnout of over 57% in Italy which is enough to guarantee the quorum even if residents abroad are included. All four have a majority of well over 90% which means that more than half of the total electorate supported the repeal of the four laws. More than the substance of the laws, most of them were making a clear statement of their distaste for the Prime Minister. Once again, for the third time in a month, Berlusconi backed a loser.
In Milan he stood as a councillor to prove that the Milanese supported him against the Milan court: his vote was halved compared to 2006 and his mayoral candidate had to face a run-off. After a bitter and racist campaign, she then went on to lose the run off as did his candidate in Naples. This time for the referendums, he feigned indifference and said he was not going to vote because the referendums were irrelevant, hoping that a combination of opposition and apathy would win the day for the noes.
Instead a large number of Italians made the effort to go out and vote despite the call of the beaches in late spring. Some pollsters reckoned that as many as 6-7% voted precisely because Berlusconi wanted them not to, much the same as happened 20 years ago when his friend Bettino Craxi told Italians to “go to the seaside”. They did, but they voted first and soon threw out Craxi.
This time, they repealed two laws which encourage the privatisation of water supply, an important measure but not in itself vital. They repealed the law which sought to re-start Italy’s nuclear energy programme which means that it will be another decade or two before an government can restart another programme and finally, the bellwether question, they abolished the prime minister’s and ministers’ possibility of not turning up to their trials because of a “legitimate impediment”. The law had a twilight clause on it and was due to terminate in October and in any case the Constitutional Court had given most of the control back to the court sitting in judgment. The effects on Berlusconi’s trials will be minimal but the political effect is very clear. Most Italians do not like their prime minister avoiding judgment.
Of course Berlusconi could step down, but that is not his style. It is very clear that the centre-right is in a serious mess and that they have no exit strategy. With a one-man party, there is no mechanism to find a new leader and no obvious substitute. Two of his apparently most faithful courtiers, the undersecretary Daniela Santanché and businessman, Flavio Briatore, were caught in a leaked telephone conversation admitting that he was ill, had not changed his lifestyle (and continued with his bunga-bunga parties, only in a different villa) and showed little concern for the country. “If people like that think he’s cooked… what about the rest of us?” was a widespread feeling.
So Bossi keeps his nuclear option ready.
For the moment, at any rate, Berlusconi “staggers on like the mummy” said one friend, and he is looking increasingly like one too.