Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sisiphus Bersani

President Napolitano has finally spoken – almost four weeks after the elections. He took the only option open short of resigning himself (to allow his successor to call early elections) and that was to give a mandate to Pierluigi Bersani leader of the Democratic Party (PD). But it is a conditional mandate – not directly to form a government but to see if there is the possibility of finding a stable majority to support his government. Then Bersani must report back, probably before Easter though there is no explicit deadline on the mandate.

In an unprecedented speech after giving Bersani the job, Napolitano spoke at length albeit vaguely, about the need for national unity and the need to deal with the pressing economic problems rather than having devisive elections. It was a not very veiled appeal to Bersani to talk to Silvio Berlusconi (centre-right People of Freedom, PdL), to Beppe Grillo (Five Star Movement, M5S) to talk to Bersani and to Berlusconi to actually compromise.

The speech set the tone for Bersani to start the official part of his job (he’s been working on it unofficially since the elections).

His game plan is to end with the parties rather than start negotiating with them from the beginning. First he will seek declarations of support from civil society – the trades unions and employers both of whom want stable government – from associations, Catholic and secular, trade and professional who can also endorse his government. At the same time, he is putting together a lineup for a streamlined cabinet (15 rather than 18 in Monti’s) of people who are either new faces or older ones well outside the party nomenklature; people who are certainly not closely linked to the PD like the present minister of the interior, Anna Maria Cancellieri, the runner-up for the top employers’ federation (Confindustria) job, Alberto Bombassei for Economic Development.

The basis of his programme will be the 8 points he proposed immediately after the elections. As they stand, they are pretty anodyne but the PdL is concerned that new anti-corruption and conflict of interest laws are aimed at Berlusconi (which of course they are). Grillo says they are all within the M5S programme so ignores them.

Grillo’s game plan is not at all clear. Yesterday the M5S Senate spokesman, Vito Crimi first said that if the PD gave up all their public financing “we can talk” and in the evening said “we will not vote a Bersani government confidence motion – what language do you want me to say it in?” Grillo and the movement are in a catch 22 dilemma; they are like a dog that chases after a car and then doesn’t know what to do with it when it’s caught it. If Grillo negotiates with Bersani and comes to a compromise, the pure protest vote will cry “sell-out” and leave him. If he refuses to compromise and forces new elections, then the moderates will return to the PD. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. But for the moment, he holds the cards.

But if Bersani can present a cabinet of clean faces and a programme which matches at least some of the grillini’s main objectives, he might just persuade enough of them to walk out at the vote of confidence.

Silvio Berlusconi and the PdL are playing a double game. Yesterday, their spokesman, Fabrizio Cicchitto said that they were available to work towards a broad coalition to deal with the economy and national interests. Today, Berlusconi and (he hopes) half a million others will fill piazza del Popolo in a protest against the judiciary, a curious position for someone who proclaims himself only interested in national unity but entirely consistent with his previous record. He is at his best in an election campaign or at least at the centre of attention and at the moment he has neither. The PD knows that an alliance with Berlusconi is the kiss of death in an early election so keep him and the PdL at more than arm’s length. And Berlusconi knows that the longer a Bersani or “President’s” government lasts, the more chances there are of him being convicted again and possibly expelled from Parliament by a PD-M5S vote. Time works against him personally and against the very uncertain unity of the PdL.

So he has to return to centre stage either in a Grand Coalition or in early elections.

His allies in the Northern League (LN) say they will not come to a separate deal with Bersani but if Bersani can offer them a constitutional reform which creates a Senate for the Regions, then LN leader, Umberto Maroni might give partial support.

To succeed, Bersani has to translate conditional support into something solid and remove the reciprocal vetoes.

Sisiphus is maybe the wrong metaphor for Bersani. The founder of Corinth had to push a rock; whatever effort he put into the task would hardly damage it while Bersani has to put Sisiphus’s energy into the job but with the precision of a watchmaker. And if and when he completes the fragile structure, he has to persuade Napolitano that it is robust… at least enough to last till next year.

Unlike Sisiphus, though, Bersani is not condemned to an eternal game of government formation. If he doesn’t make it by Easter, as the comic imitator, Maurizio Crozza said in his sketch last night, “after the Easter holidays there’s a ton of bargain package holidays for you to take”.

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