A tactless remark from a cabinet minister was the cue for Silvio Berlusconi to storm back onto center-stage. The consequences for Italy and for the rest of Europe are likely to be dire.
After months of dithering and keeping his supporters on tenterhooks Berlusconi finally decided to once again throw his hat in the ring and run for prime minister or at least “return to the center of politics” as the People of Freedom (PdL) secretary said. A few hours earlier, Corrado Passera the suave and experienced Minister for Economic Development had said that “A return to the past would not be good for Italy”. The remark was an explicit reference to Berlusconi’s PdL led government which stepped down in November last year. The immediate reaction was a salvo of criticism from PdL leaders followed by Berlusconi’s promise to come back.
On Friday, the PdL abstained from a vote of confidence on the budget bill and today, Angelino Alfano the party secretary, said that the Monti government was over. Berlusconi in practice brought the government down over a huff and a caprice.
A couple of weeks ago he had promised that he would “pull a dinosaur out of the hat”; the implication was that he was the dinosaur and so it is.
The given reason was predictable; Monti’s economic policies, according to Berlusconi, are not working and he has to return in order to save Italy… again.
Behind the rhetoric, there are myriad real reasons, mostly personal, as ever with Berlusconi, but some are party political.
The first is Sunset Boulevard on the Tiber. Berlusconi is the aging star who refuses to accept that he is past it and still craves adulation and the attention of fawning fans and the media. He is 76 and despite (and sometimes because of) the very visible pancake makeup, he looks his age and more. This “I know my people” plan is a dangerous ploy as he also knows that he risks an electoral disaster and before that bitter criticism from his own former party faithful; that is why he has waited so long to declare his hand.
Then there are much more concrete reasons outside the realm of psychopolitics. Cabinet was discussing a decree law which if passed would prevent anyone convicted of crimes which carry a two year sentence or more from running for office. As it stands, it only applies to those convicted at all three of Italy’s levels of judgment. It would only affect a couple of parliamentarians though rather more at lower levels of government. Berlusconi himself has never been convicted at the highest level but his close friend and business associate, Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, who was convicted of mafia association by the Court of Appeal but was let off on a technicality by the Supreme Court, was convicted at all three levels for false accounting with a two year three month sentence but even he would still be able to stand as there is a date stamp in the law and his conviction is past its best by.
There was talk that before the decree law is passed, it might be modified to include first or second level convictions in which case Berlusconi would be in trouble personally. Even as it stands, the draft law says that anyone convicted while in office will have to stand down. Berlusconi is expecting judgment on the Ruby case in February in which he is accused of using under age prostitution and abuse of power. That would only be the court at first instance but he felts the noose tightening.
He and Alfano have made it clear that another reason for abandoning the government is the lack of progress on the reform of justice. Berlusconi and Alfano when he was minister of justice did nothing to answer the most pressing issue facing Italian justice: the years it takes to reach a definitive sentence. This is not only a problem of equity and justice but a serious discouragment to investment; no one is going to invest when they know the courts do not decide civil cases.
Berlusconi, in contrast, is only concerned that judges and magistrates should bear personal civil liability for their actions independent of malice or negligence. So in his world, if a prosecution fails, the prosecutor should be personally liable for damages to the accused. It is a measure which smells of vendetta as well as a way to discourage any prosecutor from proceeding, not just the over-zealous.
His other hobbyhorse is to limit telephone taps. Wire taps, both leaked and regularly used in court proceedings have been very damaging for his reputation and others’ but they have been shown to be the most effective and cheapest way of obtaining evidence.
For his party as well as himself, Berlusconi would like elections to be earlier rather than later. Whatever happens, there were going to be general elections by April next year but after bringing the government down and Monti resigning, they will take place in February (either 7th or 24). And since the region of Latium will vote in early February and Lombardy probably in March, Berlusconi argues that millions of euros would be saved by having a single (or two) election days rather than three. It sounds logical enough but there are election tactics not far below.
The present electoral system allows the party to decide who is elected – for the PdL, the “fixed party list” is fixed by Berlusconi but if parliament changes the law as they say they want to, it would be the voters who would probably choose. So better to have elections sooner rather than later and without changing the electoral system.
The center-right is on a downward slope at the moment; they lost the regional elections in Sicily in October and polls give the PdL anywhere between 10 and 20%, a disaster compared to their 37% in 2008. If, as is likely they lose the Latium elections and then the Lombardy ones, the trend will continue, they fear. Worse, the backbiting and divisions would have torn what is left of the party apart.
Until Berlusconi said he was coming back, secretary Alfano was banking on primary elections to give himself some legitimacy but after the success of the center-left Democratic Party’s (PD) primaries, the PdL would have match the PD’s turnout which they cannot do. So primaries would actually have worsened the center-right’s position. Hence the need for snap elections brought about by bringing the government down.
Finally, Berlusconi wants to ride the Grillo tiger. Beppe Grillo is the Genoese comic who has launched his Five Star Movement (M5S) in a national force which pollster reckon is the second biggest party in the country. It is mostly left wing but there is a strong populist element against traditional parties and politics. Berlusconi hopes to tap into this discontent and regain some of the alienated centre-right voters. About half the electorate is either undecided or says they will not vote. They do not like Monti’s austerity measures and the old parties. If Berlusconi can mobilise even a small proportion of them, he will increase his share enormously. Berlusconi is also tapping into Grillo’s anti-Merkel and anti-Europe vein.
The consquences of Berlusconi’s threatened return were immediate. The spread between German and Italian government bonds which had dipped below 300 for the first time since early last year immediately jumped to the mid 300s, a tangible demonstration that Berlusconi’s showing declared reason of “saving the Italian economy” was nonsense.
Italy is liable to once again be seen as the risky man of Europe as well as being sick and all the gains in reputation and pains in austerity will go by the board.
Many feared that Berlusconi would pull a Silviosaur out of the hat but hoped that he wouldn’t, for the good of Italy and of Europe but he has and Italy is once again thrown into the storm.
Unless the old triumvirate of President Napolitano, the European Union and the markets can persuade Berlusconi to step back (unlikely), the elections will probably be in February and will certainly be coloured by economic uncertainty and bitterly divisive internal politics.
An edited version of this appeared in Foreign Policy.
As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now more likely to be a month afterwards. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.