Saturday, April 13, 2013

Faites vos jeux – if you dare.

One of the plagues afflicting Italy at the moment is a dramatic increase in betting – scratch cards, the lottery and on line Texas Hold’em. But despite the national gambling obsession, no one is putting any money on who is going to form the next government, or when it will be formed. The odds are simply too long and variables too many and uncertain, worse than the lottery.

In a normal sporting accumulator bet, the events take place in succession and independently of each other. In the Italian game, the events take place concurrently and influence each other. One decision (or “win” in gambling terms) sets off a dependence path which conditions the way the game is played out.

This is the short answer to a question which was thrown at me by a Canadian journalist “But it's not clear to me and some colleagues what the deputies are doing without a government!”

The long answer is more complicated.

There are three players in Parliament, two of whom have to work together in order have the numbers for a majority in the Senate, the essential condition for a government.
Up till now, the biggest group, the Democratic Party (PD) and its leader, Pierluigi Bersani put forward a limited programme (8 points) aimed enticing some members of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) to support him. It didn’t work with Grillo repeating again and again “what part of ‘no alliance’ don’t you understand”.

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) has been saying that a PD-PdL grand coalition of national unity is the only alternative to early elections but they are aiming at sharing power and positions rather than a clear programme, or at least not a programme that the PD could accept.

That was the scissors-stone-paper stalemate until now – there is less than a week to go till Parliament starts the process of electing the new president on Thursday and who they choose will be one of the “dependence paths” which will change what follows. The 1,007 electors (both houses of parliament and representatives of the regions) or rather their leaders are trying to decide who to support.

In the PD, Bersani’s uncompromising position is beginning to show cracks. With his 8 points, he showed himself to be a politician of principle and policy rather compromising for positions and power. Perhaps if he had published them before the election, the results would have been different. Still, since then, he has stuck to his guns and is prepared to step down or aside rather than get into bed with Berlusconi and the PdL which shows that he has completely freed himself from the shadow of Massimo D’Alema, the former leader of the centre-left for whom Bersani fronted for a long time. D’Alema was always prepared to compromise with Berlusconi, usually with disastrous results for himself and the party. Bersani has refused partly for principle and partly because he thinks the party would lose badly if it went into a PD-PdL coalition.

Earlier this week, Bersani finally met Berlusconi but repeated that he was only prepared to talk about possible presidential candidates and not about a grand coalition. Cautious communiqués came out of the meeting but nothing remotely close to real names or a plan of action on either front. Bersani has held his ground against a grand coalition.

Others in the PD are not so sure, hence the cracks. The runner-up in the primaries, Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence, is stepping on Bersani’s tail, telling him to get a move-on or get out of the way. Others would like to see some sort of deal at least for the presidency and probably for a government with Berlusconi. There is a growing risk of a split in the PD which would mean a collapse in early elections and severe damage even elections were not until next year. One of the ministers in the present government, Fabrizio Barca has offered his experience as an economist and should strengthen the left of the party.

In the M5S, there are small cracks appearing. There was always going to be some slippage in a new and heterogeneous movement; Grillo himself reckoned on 10-15% which was more or less the number that did not turn up to a secret meeting on Friday. Opinion polls also suggest that some of his support has moved back to both the PD and the PdL. In their primaries to choose their own presidential candidate yesterday, they came out with egg on their face annulling the online vote "because of hackers"; there is no independent monitoring so something was presumed to be fishy.

The third group is the PdL. There are no visible cracks but Berlusconi has two trials coming to judgement over the next few weeks, one for having sex with an under age prostitute (the so-called “Ruby” case) and the other for tax evasion (“Mediaset”). In both he could be found guilty. The “Mediaset” verdict is from the Court of Appeal and if they confirm the sentence at first instance, he could be barred from holding public office. On top of this, a model agent interviewed on television asserted that Berlusconi had had sex with another 17 year old, Noemi Letizia in 2009. And investigations continue in allegations that he paid €3m to a senator in 2008 to vote against the Prodi government.

The centre-right is almost as fragile as the others.

On the PdL’s fringes, the Northern League’s is divided between supporters of the new and the old leaders, Roberto Maroni and Umberto Bossi. They almost came to blows last weekend and there is talk of the party splitting so they are in no state to fight an election.

So three parties could go in at least two directions upping the odds. They have to decide on who to elect at president next week so our reluctant punter would first have to bet on the president, at the moment even more obscure than last month’s conclave. Then will the new president be able to cajole the parties into forming a government? There could be a side bet on the Rome’s mayor, a very open four-way race with first round voting on 26 May

In theory of course, the new president could call early elections as soon as he or she is elected but no one seriously wants elections because of the uncertainty and above all because without changing the electoral system, there is the near certainty of a new stalemate.

This would all be much better illustrated with a Prezi presentation but neither I nor my blog are up to it yet.

But whether with words or slick illustrations, it is clear that all bets are off for the moment.

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