Last week was a helter-skelter in Italian politics as Silvio Berlusconi tried to re-establish his undisputed leadership over the centre-right and to protect himself in some way from the effects of his August conviction for fraud and tax evasion.
For the whole week he told Italians that he and his party were leaving Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s coalition government and would vote against the government in any confidence vote. Then on Wednesday morning, he made the dramatic U turn; after delivering a seering criticism of Letta and the government’s action, he ended his speech by saying that a stable government was necessary and that he and his party, the People of Freedom (PdL) would be voting for the confidence. Since the difference between confidence and no confidence is one letter (fiducia/sfiducia), a lot of people were left wondering what they had heard. The senators had no doubts and half the chamber broke out in peels of laughter. A very surprised prime minister Letta was caught on camera mouthing a very obvious “Grande!”. Shortly afterwards as they went through the division in alphabetical order, Berlusconi was one of the first to give his support to Letta.
For most of the week, Berlusconi, his hardline supporters in Parliament, his newspapers and television channels had been sharply criticising Letta and his government. The reason was his desperation at the prospect of being expelled from the Senate, a process which started on Friday with the from the Senate Committee on Immunity to expel him and will almost certainly end by mid-October with the whole Senate will vote to expel him. It will be a blow to his prestige and a bitter reminder that he is a convicted criminal but more importantly, it will leave him open to the possibility of arrest in some of ongoing trials as he loses the parliamentarian’s protection.
In the parliamentary manoeuvres, he needed to show his control of the party and his power to bring the government down and call snap elections
Berlusconi seemed to show his usual dominance of his party – a fortnight ago he inaugurated the new Forza Italia (FI) headquarters and changed the PdL’s name back to the old party name, all without any reference to party members. Then on Wednesday a week ago, he announced that all the parliamentarians would be resigning and provided a form which almost all of them signed; again with no discussion in the party and to make matters worse, while Letta was in the US and Canada trying to present Italy as a stable and reliable country to the UN and potential North American investors. When Letta returned, he and the cabinet suspended action in order to confirm that they really did have the support of parliament. On Saturday 10 days ago, Berlusconi upped the stakes by ordering the five PdL Cabinet ministers to resign which they promptly did, writing “irrevocable” letters or resignation.
Superficially, it looked as if this was the same old Berlusconi, the boss and owner of the PdL-FI in the same way that he is the owner the Milan football club. Nowhere else in Europe could a party leader demand such loyalty from ministers and parliamentarians.
It looked to good to be true and so it was.
On Sunday, three of the ministers publicly expressed their doubts as to the wisdom of resigning and said that Berlusconi had been “ill-advised” by the hardline, “hawkish” wing of the party. Then Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister, PdL party secretary and Berlusconi protegé said that supported Berlusconi “in a different way” to the hawks. Alfano had always been a yes-man in complete thrall to Berlusconi who had even insulted him in public, saying that he didn’t have the backbone to be a leader. By Sunday, he was showing independence and it was evident that there was a significant number of dissidents in the PdL.
Still, on Monday, at a meeting of PdL Parliamentarians, Berlusconi explained that they would be voting against the government. Once again, there was no debate. But the following day, it was clear that enough senators would go against Berlusconi and support the government. Letta had carefully postponed the confidence vote to give his negotiators another 24 hours to convince wavering PdL senators.
Berlusconi was left with the alternative of sticking to his hardline and splitting the party or in effect jumping on the doves’ anti-Berlusconi bandwagon. On the morning of the vote it still looked as if he was going to vote against the confidence motion and some of the early speakers confirmed the hardline.
In the Senate, the PdL group left the Chamber during the debate in order to decide what to do. There was an increasing flow against Berlusconi and at the last minute, he decided that his best tactic was to change.
With the U turn, he hopes to be able to regain control of the PdL and stop a real split but the major fissure in the party is only papered over and that paper will tear very soon, in days or weeks leaving a moderate centre (they were already toying with the idea of Italia Nuova, “New Italy” as a name) and rump Forza Italia controlled by Berlusconi out of Parliament and under house arrest or doing community service (he will have to choose by mid-October).
But even with clipped wings, he will still have influence. More than 7 million Italians vote for his party in February; he has huge financial resources at his disposal and fierce loyalty from a good portion of his supporters.
He is down but not yet out.
On the other side, Enrico Letta has come out of the fray greatly strengthened in personal prestige. He has shown calm and resolve over the past week, never wavering in purpose and unwilling to make compromises over Berlusconi’s judicial problems. For the time being at least, his success has ended any discussion over the leadership of his own Democratic Party (PD)
His coalition is also stronger than before the confidence vote but it still by no means certain that it will last to the target Spring 2015. The PdL support could turn out to a poisoned chalice so unless Letta manages to win the support of a new centre-right group out of Berlusconi’s control, when (not if) the next crisis hits, he might find himself going through the whole business again. In an interview, he said that he felt he was living through “Groundhog day”, even after today’s success, that must still be his nightmare.
For their part the sighs of relief from President Napolitano and the European partners was audible across the continent as Italy will continue to be able to service its debt, pass a budget and begin to approach the deepseated economic problems.
This is an updated version of Silvio Berlusconi’s long goodbye published on BBC News, 2 Oct.