Just a few months ago Silvio Berlusconi seemed to be all but a political corpse and it was believed that both he and his party were already history. Still opinion polls show that his coalition gains some considerable support of 28 % [some give the PdL even more]. How could this be explained? How much leverage will Berlusconi have in the next parliament?
Berlusconi's comeback is the stuff of political legend and the reason for his success is one of commonest questions asked and most difficult to answer satisfactorily.
But here are some answers. He was and still is a consumate showman; he has performed well and persuasively as a salesman, singer and politician. His message has faded as the promises have not been fulfilled but there are
still a significant number of Italians who are attracted by it. Very few of them seriously believe that their IMU property tax will be reimbursed by April (or ever). This morning Berlusconi sent a fake reimbursement form to 9 million Italians; it purports to give the bearer the right to a tax credit in a bank or post office but I doubt that many will actually try and use it. Nor do his supporters seriously believe he will build the bridge across the Straits of Messina (which he promised 12 years ago) or 4 million new jobs (it was one million 12 years).
A few of them, mostly men but even some women, like him for his lifestyle and example - the older he gets, the more hair he has, the few wrinkles and the more girls but the thick pancake makeup is ever more visible and girls
more tawdry so that message is not the main winner.
The one that succeeds is certainly not subliminal and is almost explicit. Berlusconi's Italy is one where the rules are flexible, at least of some, the furbi or smart guys. Tax rules, building rules, business rules. While Monti and Bersani are boring and threaten to make rules and apply them. Last week Berlusconi complained at prosecutors who arrested the Finmecanica chief for paying bribes. He said that in some countries bribes were an essential part of doing business. He meant India but could have been referring to some parts of Italy. Then he backtracked and said he didn't mean it… but the message was clear. Yesterday he called the judiciary "a cancer" - strong language but he had called some of them "a metastesis" in the past. He is convinced that he should have no bridle.
Three other reasons for his relative success - he is doing hugely better than his December polls of c. 15% but still way behind the 2008 poll of 38% - are Italy's solid conservative majority, Berlusconi's resources and the
division of the opposition.
For most of the 20th century and still today, the majority of Italians are tendentially conservative and only rarely have expressed a centre-left government. Berlusconi taps into the vein which is always there. In the past, he waved the "communist" frightener, today it is Vendola and the radical left.
Then he has immense media resources and uses them to great effect.
Finally, in the past and still today, the left, centre-left and centre have always been bickering and divided and in contrast, Berlusconi has been able to reunite the centre-right which without was even more fractious that the others.
As for leverage, Berlusconi needs a presence in Parliament to look after his media interest and to try and condition his trials. If there is indeed a Bersani-Monti coalition, he will have some power to condition parliamentary and government business but any serious wrecking tactics will be difficult because they would make him look like Grillo. And of course, if he loses, he will withdraw again and then the PdL will begin to disintegrate once again and they will go back to where they were before Christmas
How are the relations between the Democratic Party and Mario Monti's Block developing since he announced he will join politics? Will they be able to form a stable coalition?
Monti, Bersani and Vendola have been marking their territory and identifying their differences in order to increase their own share of the poll but they have been careful not to be too rude about each other so as not to make a coalition impossible after the elections. Monti has been careful to only exclude policies not people and leave the door open to a possible united programme of government.
Many say that PD's Bersani faces the risk of internal opposition from within his party if he tries to continue Monti's policies. How determined and how capable will the next Italian government to implement reforms?
The PD are in a similar position to the British Labour Party in the '90s. They have been in opposition for long enough to be prepared to make just about any effort not to rock the boat. Vendola for his part is a pragmatic politician who governs are difficult and diverse region, Apulia compromising where necessary (some say too much in his management of the Taranto steelworks where the environment has been sacrificed for jobs). There will be and is already opposition to some of Monti's measures from the PD's economics spokesman, Stefano Fassina but Bersani takes his strength from the primaries which elected him.
Has Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement reached its maximum in terms of public support? How have they developed in terms of party structure? How will they look in the next Parliament?
For the time being, they have certainly reached a ceiling - but we don't know exactly what it is. It could be as much as 20%. They still have no party structure and the only decisionmaking process is what Grillo himself thinks. In Parliament, they have three alternatives: they can give themselves a structure and rules and develop policies and tactics or they will do exactly what Grillo tells them to do or they will melt into the other Parliamentary groups (and Berlusconi has already hinted that he might be moving into the transfer business again). Since there could well be 100 of them, it is possible that they might do all three. The only thing that is is that initially, they will make a lot of noise in Parliament, they keep very, very close tabs on what their colleagues do and will be highly critical. The medium term, though, is impossible to predict.
As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a one day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.
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