While the rest of Europe is worrying about the possible implosion of the euro, Berlusconi is once again marshalling his forces for a vote of confidence tomorrow.
The reason this time is a combination of a disintegrating coalition and sloppy parliamentary management. The government was defeated on Tuesday on a division on article 1 of last year’s budget account. This should be and normally is a formality; it would only be controversial if there were suggestions that the books had been cooked which there aren’t. The money has been spent after all, and Parliament has to approve the account. Instead the article was turned down by one vote which means that the rest of the bill cannot be discussed.
The Italian system does not have whips so there is no one whose job it is to see that parliamentarians actually turn up to divisions and with a good majority this is usually not a problem (even though they have lost quite a few votes over the last few months). On Tuesday there were two key ministers (Tremonti and Bossi) who arrived late for the vote (the Chamber votes electronically with deputies at their own places) despite being in the building. An ex-minister Claudio Scajola who had had a long meeting with Berlusconi that morning also did not turn up.
Berlusconi called the defeat a “technical hitch” but it is much more serious than that. According to the constitutionalist, Michele Ainis, the government has put itself in a catch 22. It cannot re-present an identical bill for six months and it cannot change an account which has already been closed. And without the previous year’s account approved, the government cannot move on to this year’s. President Napolitano has said that the Prime Minister must sort out the puzzle so there will be some sleight of hand by lawyers and accountants in order to allow the ship of state to keep spending. It is just possible that the president will not accept whatever solution is presented, but unlikely.
That is the form and the letter of the law. On the substance, the defeat was yet more proof that the coalition is disintegrating. An increasing number of parliamentarians in Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL)(People of Freedom) would like him to step aside and let someone else run the country and the party until the elections and his ally, Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord (LN)(Northern League) has said explicitly that the government will not last till 2013. This morning Berlusconi gave a 19 minute speech explaining why he was going to continue and that Tuesday’s defeat did not count. Bossi was sitting next to the prime minister and his body language was most eloquent – he couldn’t stop yawning.
His probably successor, the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, went and sat on the LN benches rather than his ministerial seat, another very explicit move.
The right wing commentator, Marcello Veneziani wrote about “leaders who hadn’t died and babies who haven’t been born” this morning (in one of the Berlusconi family papers). He pointed out, rightly enough, that reports of Berlusconi’s political death have been much exaggerated, for the last 333 days, he said (but he could have said for the last 17 years). And he points out that despite the many proclamations, the opposition leader has not been born yet. Also true. He does not add, though, that both facts are to the utter detriment of a country which is in serious economic trouble and risks dragging the rest of the euro zone down with it.
Veneziani and some other courtiers like the editor of another family paper, Il Foglio, Giuliano Ferrara do indeed criticise Berlusconi but from the role of court jester; none of his political associates have the courage to act decisively enough to end the misery. He is like a bull in the ring, weakened by the picadors and made angry by banderilleros but there is still no matador.
It is a zombie government, not clinically dead but close to being brain dead, lurching from one crisis to another, golem-like and out of control. Worse, actually, because Berlusconi is very much alive to his own appetites and aversions.
If Berlusconi loses the vote of confidence, he will have to resign but knowing his stubbornness, he will try and put together a new government. Some of the opposition and some of the majority too would like to see a “technical” interim government to see Italy through the acute moment of the financial crisis but there is no consensus yet. The other alternative is early elections.
My own guess is that he will win the vote tomorrow but that the next crisis is just round the corner and the chances that this government will run its full term to 2013 are decreasing by the minute. But I might be proved wrong tomorrow. Either way, spring elections are more and more likely and the overall prospects are not good.