One of the caricatures of Italian opera is the call to immediate action usually launched by the tenor “Andiam! Partiam!” (“let’s go, let’s leave!”), sustained heartily by a robust chorus… for the last 25 minutes of act III.
The People of Freedom (PdL), or at least part of them, are singing that tune, except that instead of the lead tenor, we have Daniela Santanché at the moment Silvio Berlusconi’s most outspoken supporter. She and the other so-called hawks have been saying that unless Berlusconi is granted some sort of agibilità politica, a neologism which more less means a “licence to act politically”, despite his conviction to gaol and a bar to holding public office on tax evasion and fraud charges, then they will bring the government down.
Forza Italia (FI), Berlusconi’s original 1994 party has in practice been resuscitated and is on an election footing; Berlusconi has declared as much and his people have promised (threatened) aerial publicity over the beaches on Thursday, Ferragosto, Italy’s second most sacred holiday after Christmas. There are already posters up in parts of Milan. It is significant, but hardly surprising that the end of the PdL and the rebirth of FI has taken place with no discussion, deliberation, motions. In that party, the boss decides and no one questions his decisions.
But even if Santanché is spoiling for a fight, we are unlikely to have a first ever autumn election.
The end of the present government, headed by Enrico Letta, would mean an automatic increase in VAT (the default setting which the government would like to change), it would mean the automatic payment of the IMU property tax which the PdL promised to abolish and the application of another local service tax, the TARES for a total of €7bn according to the reliable CGIA thinktank.
IMU is a double-edged sword. The PdL hawks threaten to bring the government down if it is not abolished but if they do, they risk taking the blame for the inevitable tax increases that would follow. Letta has said that the cabinet will deal with the IMU and other tax issues on 30 August.
Another reason for not having a snap election is that on 3 Dec., the Constitutional Court will rule on the present electoral law, nicknamed the Porcellum or Pig’s Dinner. If they declare it unconstitutional – it gives the winning coalition 55% of the the seats in the Chamber even as was the case in February, they only won 29% of the vote – then a Parliament elected in November with the old law would lose its legitimacy.
In any case, elections with the Porcellum would most likely result in a similar result, forcing another “broad agreement” between PD and PdL, or worse if Grillo were to come out with the relative majority in the Chamber, he would have the 55% premium and could call the shots – not likely but a nightmare scenario for the PdL and PD.
Then there are the divisions within both PdL and PD which would make snap elections even more uncertain. For the PdL, there is the question of succession. The further Silvio Berlusconi moves from centre stage the more the divisions in the centre-right become apparent as they did last year before Christmas when they were polling a mere 15%. This is precisely why Santanché would like elections now but of course there is no way to do it.
The PD is hardly better off. At the moment, their divisions are merely comic – at their last Directive meeting, the two party vice-presidents issued conflicting statements over the date of their autumn congress. But there are real differences over policy and leaders which they hope will be resolved by the congress but which are still open wounds.
Hovering not very far in the background is another nightmare scenario for the PdL which is Napolitano’s threat to resign if the government falls. If that were to happen, there is a fair chance that this time, the centre-left would succeed in electing Romano Prodi, Berlusconi’s nemesis.
Outside the limited sphere of direct self-interest, Italy takes over the EU presidency in July next year and no one really wants to see the country in turmoil. On the economic front, the public debt continues to grow and the GDP to fall but positively, the difference between German and Italian interest rates which govern the cost of servicing the Italian debt is at the lowest for two years. These are mixed signals and no one wants to be responsible for making them wholly negative.
But over the short term, it is Berlusconi’s agibilità politica which conditions the noise levels of Italian politics – for the government, Letta has shown himself to be even more unflappable in public than his predecessor Mario Monti.
The Senate committee on eligibility for election is due to decide “by October” on whether he should step down now under a 2012 law which bars anyone with more than a two year conviction from holding or standing for public office. They will almost certainly declare him disbarred from being a senator though he will almost certainly appeal against the decision.
Then some time over the next two or three months the Milan Court of Appeal will declare on the exact length of Berlusconi’s bar on public office, one, two or three years. Until then, even if he wanted to, Napolitano could not issue a pardon or any other measure on what is still an indetermined sentence. He has promised a statement today or tomorrow but however much he wants the government to hold, he would be foolhardy to try and overturn a Supreme Court verdict before the full sentence has been published (in Italy the verdict is given one day but the reasons for it are not made public for 60 days).
The original “Andiam, partiam” aria was in Gounod’s Faust, act II so we still have a long way to go till the grand finale. It is just possible that Letta’s government will survive its full term to 2018, but highly unlikely; he could make it to his own self-imposed term of 2015 but only if his ability and circumstance allow him to exploit the divisions in the PD and PdL (and their successors) rather than be brought down by the ever more serious bickerings within and between the two parties. Or he could last until next spring when there is a new electoral law and the two parties think that they can face elections or at least the cost of staying together would be even higher.