Show Hide image

Italy: The Shape of Things to Come

Berlusconi is back from the dead, but perversely, it is the right that will benefit as Italy slips i

Silvio Berlusconi could barely contain his relief. As the results of Tuesday's crucial confidence vote were read out, he clapped his hands with joy and grinned bullishly. Despite months of sex scandals, corruption charges, legal battles, constitutional crises, and political infighting, he had defied political gravity once again. Far from taking the beating that pundits predicted, il Cavaliere - as the flamboyant Berlusconi is known - saw off the threat posed by his one-time ally, Gianfranco Fini, and has consolidated his hold on the premiership, despite squeaking through the vote by the narrowest of margins.

Not everyone is so pleased. Even as the votes were being counted in the Chamber of Deputies, protestors gathered in Rome to "withdraw confidence from below". Along with vast numbers of students agitating against controversial education reforms, thousands of opposition supporters massed for an anti-Berlusconi demonstration. What began as a peaceful march quickly turned violent as 'black bloc' protestors, anarchists and Ultrà football fans joined the fray and broke through police lines protecting the Chamber, the Senate, and the Prime Minister's residence. Cars were set on fire, banks were attacked, and petrol bombs were thrown throughout the city as four hours of street fighting erupted. Fifty-seven police officers and sixty-two demonstrators were injured in pitched battles of horrifying brutality.

But however great public opposition, Berlusconi is not going anywhere for the time being. Although the secession of Gianfranco Fini's rather unstable Futura e Libertà per l'Italia (FLI) from the governing coalition has weakened il Cavaliere's own party - the Popola della Libertà (PdL) - Berlusconi's survival is guaranteed by two factors.

On the one hand, Italy's opposition is in disarray. While we in Britain are used to scandal-ridden governments being punished in Parliament and at the ballots, things are more complicated in Italy. Since 2008, , the left-wing Partito Democratico (PD - Democratic Party) has been Italy's main opposition party. On paper, it should have been in an ideal position to reap the profits of Berlusconi's sliding popularity. But the reverse is true. The PD has been convulsed by divisions and paralysed by a lack of direction. Under three successive leaders, it has gone backwards, not forwards. Last June - as Berlusconi was rocked by the scandal surrounding his relationship with 18-year-old Noemi Letizia - the PD not only failed to make inroads in the European elections, but dramatically lost control of many of its traditional heartlands in the administrative elections. In further administrative elections in March, the party did even worse, and watched in horror as its strongholds fells to the centre-right. Even now, as pressure on Berlusconi has reached fever-pitch, the PD seem incapable of transforming popular dissatisfaction into concrete results, and even with the support of Italy's other opposition parties, failed to make the case against the embattled Prime Minister in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies.

On the other hand, Berlusconi can count on the support of his coalition allies, the xenophobic Lega Nord. Although the Lega has been a troublesome partner in the past, the party is now firmly behind the Prime Minister. It's a matter of calculation. Despite being a key member of Berlusconi's coalition, the Lega has paradoxically been in the best position to benefit from il Cavaliere's falling popularity. Opposition to 'Roma ladrona' - 'thieving Rome' - is a centrepiece of the Lega's programme. Attacking the corruption and misdirection of resources that has come to characterise Italian politics, the Lega has cast itself as an alternative to the usual suspects of Italian politics and the backsliding it attributes to its enemies and allies alike. In this way, the Lega has been able to participate in government, but yet act as an 'opposition within'.

As an electoral strategy, it has worked remarkably well. The 2009 elections were rightly seen as a victory for the Lega Nord, rather than for Berlusconi. In the 2009 European elections, Bossi's party gained 10.2% of the vote (up from 5% in 2004), its best result ever. In the administrative elections, the Lega tightened its grip on provincial and communal government in the north. And in this year's administrative elections, the Lega made sweeping gains at all levels, breaking into traditionally hostile regions, and sucking support away from Berlusconi's own party. Voters felt able to switch their support from Berlusconi's PdL to the Lega in the confidence that Bossi's party was part of the governing coalition.

As the Lega's electoral results have improved, so has its influence in the governing coalition. Umberto Bossi - the Lega's idiosyncratic leader - knows that Berlusconi needs him more than ever before, and has been able to exert more sway on the direction of policy in key areas. Bossi isn't willing to give this up. He knows that if Berlusconi falls, no-one except the PdL would even consider allying with the Lega. However good their results in a future election, they'd be cast out into the wilderness. The Lega simply can't afford to let Berlusconi go.

But if Berlusconi's political future is safe - for the time being - what does the future hold for Italy?

Three interconnected developments are likely. The first is likely to be a gradual shift in government policy towards the right. The Lega's support isn't going to come cheap, and Berlusconi is going to have to make concessions. This is a big deal. The Lega maintains an openly xenophobic platform which is frequently expressed in racist rhetoric and anti-immigration policies. Infamously, Bossi called for the Italian Navy to sink boats carrying illegal immigrants. And to make matters more troubling still, the Lega is likely to oppose further electoral reform and continue pushing for a form of fiscal federalism that will unquestionably leave the impoverished South worse off.

The second consequence of Berlusconi's survival will be a crisis of the centre-left. For the last two years, the PD has been following a strategy borrowed from New Labour. In the eyes of the PD's leader, Pier-Luigi Bersani, as for his predecessors Dario Franceschini and Walter Veltroni, success rests on the preservation of party cohesion and on capturing votes from the PdL. It is a matter of running for the political centre-ground and of forsaking the socialist past for a watered-down version of free-market liberalism. Although Tony Blair used the same strategy to great effect, it is part of the PD's problem. Because the PD consists of so many disparate groups, its headlong dash for the centre-ground is inhibited by the need to appease deputies and senators from all sides of the party. It has consistently lacked clear and decisive policies at a time when definite action is most needed. As a result, however loudly Bersani and his lieutenants condemn Berlusconi's flagrant abuse of power and manifest political failures, the PD is simply unable to present itself as a viable alternative. Its strategy has failed. Disastrously.

If the PD is to survive at all, it needs to rethink its identity from the beginning. As many Italian commentators have already observed, this isn't going to be easy. It isn't difficult to see that the PD is going to have to appeal to precisely those who have been hardest hit by Berlusconi's premiership - students, the unemployed, and blue-collar workers. This means a lurch further towards the left. But any leftward movement is likely to split the party in two. After a period of bitter infighting, modernisers and traditionalists will simply go their separate ways. The centre-left opposition will, for a time at least, be in tatters.

The third, and most worrying consequence of a Berlusconi-dominated future is a massive loss of confidence in the political process. There is no way of ignoring the shady nature of Berlusconi's government. His attitude towards the premiership makes Richard Nixon look squeaky clean, and even Robert Maxwell would have blanched at some of his actions. He has simultaneously outraged public sensibilities with his amazingly lax morals, and refused to be held to account for demeaning the Prime Minister's office. He has systematically attempted to push through unconstitutional measures to ensure his own immunity, and has blocked much-needed electoral reforms at every turn. The only safeguard that Italians could look to was the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

And yet Italy's elected representatives failed. On the one hand, members of the PdL put party loyalty and personal gain ahead of public responsibility. Although it could be argued that a vote for Berlusconi was a vote for political continuity in troubled times, there is no doubt that public accountability mattered less than back-room deals. The only disaffection on the right - Fini's FLI - split when it really mattered. On the other hand, the PD is just too weak and disorganised to mount anything like an effective opposition. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that there's no point putting any faith in the political process if you want Berlusconi out. And for any country, a lack of confidence in the political process is a dangerous thing.

Together, these three developments could prove disastrous. With an increasingly right-wing government headed by the wildly unpopular Berlusconi, a centre-left opposition rent by crisis, and a cataclysmic drop in public faith in the political process, Italy is sitting on a powder keg. Should the economic situation deteriorate further, or should yet more scandals come to light, there will be little to hold back popular resentment. The riots that swept through Rome on Tuesday evening may well just be a taste of things to come.

Dr. Alexander Lee is a Research Fellow at the Université du Luxembourg and the University of Warwick. He is a specialist in Italian history and literature, and is the author of The End of Politics: Triangulation, Realignment, and the Battle for the Centre Ground (London: Methuen, 2006).