Saturday, April 20, 2013

Chaos Squared

It would be difficult to imagine a more disastrous way of running a party or a country. The Italian Parliament yesterday was petty spite elevated to party policy under the banner of “let’s cut off our noses to spite our faces”.

The story of the numbers is easy to tell. The Italian president is elected by the two houses of parliament plus representatives of the regions.

For the first three votes, the winning candidate needs a two thirds majority (672/1007). If no one is elected, at the fourth ballot, a simple majority (504/1007) suffices.

The Democratic Party (PD) with its left-wing allies Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL) on paper have 496 votes so they had the responsibility of proposing candidates.

For almost two months since the 25 February general election, the PD secretary, Pierluigi Bersani made it clear that he was not going to form a government with Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL). He tried to work out some sort of alliance with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), failing that, he was trying to at least create a non-aggression pact which would have allowed a PD led government to carry out some necessary reforms – the electoral system, cutting the costs and subsidies in politics (today yet another spending and corruption scandal exploded in the Piedmont regional government), and initiating a recovery package for the economy.

Then on Wednesday evening, 14 hours before voting for the president was due to begin, Bersani announced that he had come to an agreement with his archenemy Berlusconi for a presidential candidate. The day before Grillo had announced that the M5S candidate was Stefano Rodotà, an academic lawyer respected by all, a man of the left but not tied to any single party… a plausible candidate for the PD. Grillo had also said that they could consider Romano Prodi as a potential candidate, if Rodotà and other failed. Instead, Bersani came to a deal with Berlusconi to the fury of a good number of PD voters and parliamentarians. It allowed Grillo to say that this was Berlusconi’s candidate which was partially true.

The Bersani-Berlusconi candidate was Franco Marini, a Catholic (important in the old logic of alternating secular and Catholic presidents, but no longer relevant in the changing architecture of Italian politics). He was a union leader, a senator and speaker of the Senate and, essential for Berlusconi, had never expressed strong antipathy for Berlusconi. In theory, PD and PdL should have polled 761 together. That would have allowed for a hundred defections in the secret ballot. In the event, Marini took an insulting 521. He was burnt instantly. Rodotà, who should have had 163 M5S votes, actually polled 240, all presumably from SEL and the PD. A picture of Bersani with his arm around the shoulder of Angelino Alfano, the PdL secretary became the symbol of the misplaced alliance; an embrace that did not augur well for Bersani.

In the second ballot on Thursday and third on Friday morning, the majority put in blank votes, holding their fire before the fourth ballot.

Yesterday morning, the PD electors met and agreed on Prodi as their candidate for the fourth ballot, intending to pick up the missing 8 votes from Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (SC) or Grillo.

As the votes were counted, PD voters grew ever more ashenfaced and the centre right exulted. The final result was 395 votes for Prodi meaning 101 PD or SEL voters had welched on the agreement. Nichi Vendola’s SEL had renounced the secret ballot by promising to write “R.Prodi” on their ballots (rather than just “Prodi” or “Romano Prodi”) and the number of votes for “R.Prodi” matched the SEL voters. So the 101 were all PD voters.

What had happened was that the PD had used the elections for the president as if it were a party conference. There were settling old and new scores and readjusting internal party balance all of it covered by a secret ballot and with the effect of not only destroying their own party but leaving the country rudderless once again.

The most likely culprits are almost certainly Massimo D’Alema and his supporters who have a personal antipathy towards both Prodi and Bersani and would prefer to see some sort of arrangement with Berlusconi for both the presidency and the government. The other possible culprit could be the mayor Florence, Matteo Renzi. He was runner up in the PD primaries in November and since the PD’s non-victory in February has been closing in on Bersani as the next party leader. He is not one of the voters but he has substantial support in the party and many could have voted against Prodi as a way of hitting Bersani. But the result is the likely disintegration of the whole party.

Yesterday evening, the party president, Rosy Bindi had resigned followed soon afterwards by Bersani who promised to step down as soon as the president has been elected.

This is not only the end of a party which five months ago was presumed to be the dead cert for the next government (they were already arguing over who should take which cabinet post) but it is yet another blow the country’s credibility at a time when Italy needs confidence and credibility more than ever.

A new president will not mean that a new government will follow automatically, even less that the government will be effective. But without a president, there can be no government.

The effects are likely to be dire for Italy which will be unable to get out the economic mess it is in and also dire for the rest of Europe which watches aghast as petty personal squabbles put the whole continent at risk.

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