Monday, July 22, 2013

Stably unstable

A week before Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s meeting with his British opposite number, David Cameron, I was at a meeting talking about some of the issues the two leaders might be discussing. Most of the meeting was about medium and long term issues like banking regulation, relations with Europe and Italian institutional reform but then the elephant in the room waved its trunk and woke us up: would there even be a Letta government by the time the two men met (very probably); would it last after Berlusconi’s Mediaset judgement due on 30 July if the Supreme Court confirms Berlusconi’s conviction (likely); would Letta last his planned 18 months to complete his reform programme (far less certain on both counts – the duration of the government and the completion of the reforms). The government did indeed last until the two men met.

So the next big shock will be next week when the Supreme Court hands down its judgement but these last ten days have been richly laced with events which show Letta’s fragility. Only one was strictly speaking a government matter and this in itself underlines that fragility – that non-government issues can threaten the government.

The threats come from two quarters. The most visible is of course Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) whose support Letta depends upon and which controls key ministries. Every time the Mediaset case is mentioned, a PdL hawk threatens a walkout of ministers and/or deputies and whenever one of their pet issues like the abolition of the IMU property tax on first houses or the increase in VAT comes up, they threaten to leave the government if the issue is not dealt with.

On the other side Letta’s own Democratic Party (PD) is so riven that there is the real possibility that one or other of the PD factions will bring the government down because they perceive an electoral advantage. No one has made these threats explicit but they do allow the rumours to fly.

Most of this is posturing as for the time being as no one either wants or can afford new elections or some other crisis. The huffing and puffing from the PdL will increase to paroxyms next week if the verdict goes against Berlusconi and from the PD will gradually increase as their winter congress draws near. But it will just be huffing and puffing unless some other factor comes into play.
The three this last fortnight have been serious enough and I will write a separate blog on each.
The first and only government-related issue was the purchase of 90 F35 fighter-bombers due to come into service in the 2020s. The left wing opposition and M5S are against them along with part of the PD but the High Council of Defence, a ministerial advisory body, declared that defence spending was an executive decision and no one in Parliament objected so the purchase plan continues. It will come back though.

Then there was the racist insult made by former Lega Nord (LN) minister and now one of the deputy speakers of the Senate, Roberto Calderoli against the minister for integration, Cécille Kyenge. The PD, the prime minister and the left (but not M5S) called on him to resign as deputy speaker, the PdL merely called on him to apologise; there was a strong division between the two government parties even if Calderoli is in neither but instead, Kyenge accepted the apologies and the crisis ended. Again, this is not the last racist remark from the LN.

Finally, and most serious for the government is the deportation of Alma Shalabayeva and her 6 year old daughter, Alma. They are the wife and daughter of Mukhtar Ablyazov, dissident Kazakh wanted by his own government but who has been granted asylum in the UK. Italian police took mother and daughter at the end of May and after holding them briefly, handed them over the Kazakh authorities who had a private jet waiting in Ciampino.
As the details of the operation come out, it is clear that serious irregularities were committed and almost certainly crimes. It looks very like a kidnapping and rendition operation. The minister of the interior, deputy prime minister and PdL secretary, Angelino Alfano has said he knew nothing of the operation. There are calls for his resignation: either he knew and was responsible for the rendition or he didn’t in which case he was incompetent. But the PdL threatened to bring the government down if he lost a vote of confidence so the PD voted solidly to support him after being admonished by by both Letta and President Napolitano. There is a lot more to be revealed about the Shalabayeva deportation and that is bound to put pressure on Alfano.

On top of these, a Milan court convicted three of Berlusconi’s friends and associates on prostitution related offences committed at his parties in Arcore. This was a separate bench to the one that convicted Berlusconi himself in the “Ruby” trial and so is further corroboration that the parties were not the “elegant soirées” that his defence argued. But scarcely a ripple reached Berlusconi or his (political) party. The fact that the former prime minister and some of his friends have been convicted of prostitution offences doesn’t seem to matter “because everyone is innocent until the final verdict”.

And for once, that “final verdict” will very likely be handed down next week and that will be the next storm.

The constitutional reforms have hardly been discussed so far even though they would revolutionise the whole structure of government; but they are another potential for division.

The wits have been saying that Napolitano appointed Letta because he is from Pisa and so could deal with precarious architecture; his government is certainly leaning but if it lasts even a thousandth of the time the Tower has been up, he will be doing well.

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