Friday, December 10, 2010

Italian countdown

Most of the foreign media seem to think that Italy is coming to the end of an era and that on Tuesday Berlusconi’s long moment at centre stage will be over. The Italian media are concerned about the detail – will he, won’t he get a majority? Who has changed sides? Why? And for how much?
For those who find Italian politics too arcane or too tedious to follow in its minutiæ, you should know that Tuesday 14 December is crunch time for Silvio Berlusconi. There will be two motions put to the Italian Parliament; a motion of confidence in the Senate tabled by the government parties – Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (LN). It will be voted on in the morning and will pass as the coalition has a solid majority.
In the Chamber of Deputies there is a vote of no confidence in the government put by the various opposition parties from Antonio Di Pietro’s Italy of Values (IdV) to Gianfranco Fini’s Future and Liberty (Fli). On paper, if everyone votes and votes according to their positions a month ago, the government should lose. But these last few days have seen feverish negotiations across the spectrum. Some are about individuals not following their party whip; rumours fly – so-and-so was offered a consultancy job €100,000 a year over the next four years; someone else was offered a free mortgage and so on or a future position in government. Some negotiations have been made public. The veteran leader of the Radical Party, Marco Pannella is once again threatening to move his six deputies from the Democratic Party to support Berlusconi as he did in the ‘90s. The price is apparently special legislation on prison reform and on the administration of justice. Fini’s principal lieutenant, Italo Bocchino has admitted that he too had a meeting with Berlusconi in order to try and come to an agreement before the vote. But it came to nothing.
Some of the negotiations are of substance, both the sleazy ones (the PD leader has called for the prosecution of paid turncoats) and the political ones like Pannella’s but most of the activity is posturing. Everyone wants to maintain the moral high ground in this case defined as “responsibility”… towards the country which is in the throes of a worsening economic crisis. No one wants to be labelled as having brought about early elections so they want to present themselves as making every possible effort to avoid the divisiveness that an election will inevitably accentuate.
The other posture in the negotiations is to paint the other side as “traitors” and one’s own as being true to “our” principles. There has been much rhetoric on this score. The centre-right tabloid Libero ran its front page earlier this week with mug shots of the Fli deputies and others who had left the PdL under the banner headline “Traitors”. Di Pietro proclaimed yesterday that if any of his deputies voted to support Berlusconi they would be “Judas who sold himself for 30 pieces of silver”.
All those involved in the negotiations have promised cliffhangers right up to the moment of the division.
After they have all pressed their buttons and the screen in the Chamber lights up, the following scenarios are possible.
Berlusconi might scrape by with a majority. This is unlikely but just possible. He might just get an absolute majority – more likely is a win due to abstentions. If it does happen by whatever means, then everyone will go home for Christmas and there will be another crisis sometime in the new year, probably fairly soon.
If he loses, then precedent and constitution mean that he would offer his resignation to President Napolitano. Napolitano will then consult with party leaders and the speakers of both houses to see who might be able to put together a new government, i.e what sort of coalition could command a majority in both houses. There is a slim possibility that Berlusconi might be given a mandate to form a new government based on a broader coalition but this was more or less what Bocchino and the Fli offered him and which he turned down.
The second possibility is that someone else is given a mandate – perhaps Berlusconi’s éminence grise, Gianni Letta, perhaps the economics minister, Giulio Tremonti to see if he has any better chances of finding a majority. There was even talk of Berlusconi stepping to one side and becoming foreign minister. Much of the opposition is clamoring for a “technical” government or a government of national unity. This would change the electoral law and try and preserve confidence in the economy until new elections could be held. But at the moment this seems unlikely because Berlusconi and the PdL are strongly against a solution which would leave him out in the cold and in their words “betray the electorate who gave him a majority in 2008”. For him, it smacks of 1994 all over again when the LN brought the government down and put in one led by the Bank of Italy director Lamberto Dini. I will go over today’s potential leaders in another blog this weekend.
In the distant past, the negotiations for a new leader and new majority often went on for weeks, sometimes months. Today that is not going to happen. If no one can form a government in a few days, the most likely scenario is that early elections will be called. The bookmakers’ favorite date is 27 March. Unless something dramatic happens over the next few days, I would put my money on that outcome as well. The results of the elections are much more uncertain, but at the moment Berlusconi would most likely win in the Chamber and given his media resource and campaigning ability, he might even make it in the Senate. But March is a long way off.
Tomorrow there will be a massive anti-Berlusconi demonstration here in Rome in Piazza San Giovanni. In order to claim success, the PD will have to make it bigger than Berlusconi San Giovanni demo just before the regional elections this year. We’ll see tomorrow; today at least the weather is a sunny 12 degrees.
There is momentum for street protests as Italian students have taken to the streets and monuments complaining about cuts in education. There was a big demo at La Scala’s opening, again protesting against cuts in the arts budget. And there is everyone else who is tired of Berlusconi and uncertainty.
Last week the budget passed, almost without a murmur and the Constitutional Court should have begun deliberations on 14th on whether the present “legitimate impediment” law which give the prime minister immunity from prosecution is actually constitutional. But they have put it off until next month. So for the moment Parliament is centre stage.
This latest act in the Berlusconi saga is heading towards a finale, but not yet the finale.

Interview with Sylvia Poggioli on NPR:

Link to the interview with Gerry Hadden in mp3 format

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