What is Happening In Italian Politics ?

Robert Waldmann

This will be a long post as it is not easy to explain how Italian politics got this way to foreigners. First I will discuss recent developments. Later I will discuss the characters in the commedia and history.

Until this week, Silvio Berlusconi was, on paper, a very powerful Prime minister with a large majority consisting of only two parties – the racist regionalist Lega Nord and the PDL a new party formed from the ex-post fascists and Forza Italia (yaaaay Italy) founded by Berlusconi. The PDL doesn’t exist any more. Berlusconi just expelled the cofounder – Gianfranco Fini last general secretary of an openly neofascist party and now President of the Camera de deputati (lower house of Parliament from now on “Camera”). This is not a return to the past as Berlusconi has kept more than half of the ex-neo-fascists. At the moment, Fini, however, has enough followers in the Camera to give the opposition a majority if he wants. On paper a no confidence motion should pass.

So what will happen next ?

Well first everyone will go to the beach. It’s August, Parliament doesn’t meet in August. The breakup was scheduled to give a month of contrasting confident predictions before there is any actual vote. There will be a lot of conflicting press releases.

So what will happen in September ? One possibility is that Berlusconi will be able to win the support of enough members of Parliament to have a new small majority. He has announced the creation of 6 new positions of undersecretary with the obvious aim of offering them to MPs from tiny parties and MPs who have already switched party since being elected. The resulting struggle in parliament will be difficult for Berlusconi. It doesn’t help that to play against the referee and Fini can use his office to make the schedule as inconvenient as possible for Berlusconi. Since the laws on which they disagree serve no purpose except to protect Berlusconi and friends from judicial investigations, Fini should enjoy heated debate.

Berlusconi’s aim is to get the President of the Republic to call early elections. It is reasonably likely that he and his remaining allies would win such elections. Fini’s new mini-party “Futuro e …” I have to check uhm … does not have any name recognition, and the number of Berlusconi haters willing to vote for an ex post neo-fascist is tiny. The issue will be whether the Parliament should serve Berlusconi’s personal interests. This has been the issue for decades and Berlusconi has won more elections than he has lost. I have no idea why people vote for his parties – I have never heard anyone admit to have done so. It’s just a fact that with a clear choice between Berlusconi and the law and the constitution, about half of Italians choose Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s problem is that the President of the Republic is not quite like the Queen of England. He is supposed to be non-partisan, but is not expected to obey the Prime Minister. In particular, The President is supposed to call early elections only if it is absolutely impossible to find a majority in Parliament. The current President, Giorgio Napolitano is a terminally moderate mild mannered ex-communist. He has quarreled less with Berlusconi than either of the other Presidents who had to deal with him as Prime minister, but he sure won’t deviate a bit from the Constitution to help Berlusconi.

Berlusconi, being Berlusconi, is likely to demand early elections and demand that he be caretaker prime minister during the campaign (this is what he did the last time he lost his majority in Parliament, although he also said the Parliament didn’t have the authority to fire him, because the constitution was rendered obsolete by a law passed in Parliament – I promise you I am not exaggerating or removing necessary context). Berlusconi is not capable of pretending to respect the constitution or the principle of division of power. In his struggle to get to an early election, he will make it absolutely clear that no Italian who gives a damn about the constitution, division of power, the Democratic tradition or elementary logic could possibly vote for him. However, this has been absolutely clear for decades and he often wins elections.

My guess is that sooner or later, Berlusconi will get angry and resign – demanding that he be made caretaker prime minister and that there be early elections. Since he still has a majority in the Senate, he will be able to make it impossible for anyone else to be Prime minister. My guess is that he gets his early elections and the issues are how much contempt for constitutional democracy will he show while demanding them (probably lots) and how many Italians share that contempt (not an absolute majority but probably a plurality).

Some politicians in the center left, including Bersani the general secretary of the Democratic Party (which makes the US Democratic party seem to be well organized) and Massimo d’Alema (a former prime minister) have made it clear that they will attempt to patch together a new majority in order to avoid an election. This would require an agreement with the xenophobic, regionalist extremist Lega Nord whose leader just responded to a reporter’s question on the constitutional reform by showing his middle finger. The proposed deal is to have a short lived majority which will change the electoral law back to a proportional system so there will never be a strong majority in Parliament and leaders of little parties with almost no support (or regional support like the Lega) will be able to block everything again. I’m pretty sure that very few Italians find this effort less disgusting than I do and it makes me feel sick. I will discuss why the hell these people are discussing obscene deals in public after I regain my composure (in my next post).

So why did Fini do it ? Technically, Berlusconi broke with Fini expelling his followers from their joint party. However, this was clearly inevitable for months as Fini openly criticized Berlusconi. Elisabetta Addis argues that the issue is who will lead the right after Berlusconi dies (note no hope that his political career will end before his life). Slavishly following Berlusconi works fine (for those who can stand the humiliation) while he is alive, but is not the way to position oneself as a leader. Fini has shown some dignity and spine (also respect for his constitutional role but I’d guess that the center right voters are willing to forgive that). However, the pile of ex allies of Berlusconi on the ash heap of Italian politics is very high (Dini, Mastella, Pievetti, Casini (more or less)).

My personal guess is that it is very very hard for anyone with any self respect to deal with Berlusconi. Berlusconi doesn’t hide the fact that he considers himself the boss. He demands that everyone repeat his absurd lies about how he is not a crook, and it’s just that investigating magistrates all over Italy are out to get him.

It is important that Berlusconi has been trying to use the parliament to protect himself and his friends from the latest judicial investigations of their many crimes (I note I am writing this in Italy so it would be libel if I could not prove my accusation. However, I would have no problem proving that Berlusconi has committed many crimes just by referring to official sentences many of which conclude he is not to be declared guilty because of the statue of limitations, an amnesty, or the fact that he had earlier parliaments change the laws he broke after he broke them. Please please sue me Silvio).

The President of the Camera (and the President of the Senate) are supposed to defend the constitutional prerogatives of those legislative bodies. Berlusconi spits on constitutional prerogatives and makes it hard for Presidents of houses of Parliament to avoid totally humiliating themselves or breaking with him. Notably the last time Berlusconi lost a majority in Parliament, the then President of the Camera Irene Pivetti was an early leader of the back bench and presidium revolt.

The Presidents of the Camera or the Senate who have not broken with Berlusconi are incredibly spineless shameless worms even by the standards of followers of Berlusconi (dear judge, I mean that metaphorically and don’t claim that I can actually prove they are helminths, although in the case of Scongnamiglio I’d be willing to try).