Berlusconi and Italy: What the Media doesn't Tell You!

Silvio BerlusconiBerlusconi in a black shirt Image via Wikipedia

In Italy, December 14 was a crucial day for Berlusconi, the head of the Italian government and of the PDL  (Polo delle Libertà - a gathering of central rightist parties). He survived motions of no confidence in both houses of Parliament by the skin of his teeth: 314 vs. 311 in the lower house: that's just 3 votes - not enough to govern.

What does it mean? That Berlusconi, who started his meteoric career back in 1992 is on his way out? He's 74 years old, and for a lot of people, it's about time he went.

It's a little more complicated than that. As he is probably the politician most hated by the foreign media, I think it might be interesting to share with you what I know of the situation since I live in Italy and talk about it to all sorts of Italians.

The picture every English language paper gives of the Italian political situation is highly simplified and often biased, starting with the Economist. Which, to some extent, is a little bizarre considering that Berlusconi is a conservative businessman (he's a media mogul and a direct rival of Murdoch in Italy: it's an on-going fight between Berlusconi's Mediaset and Murdoch's Sky). He should fit into the Economist's main audience (all business) yet he doesn't. The mystery is explained once you know that the Economist's main source of information in Italy are local journalists working for the notorious leftist paper La Repubblica.

What happened after the vote? Papers and the TV made a lot of the violence that broke out in the streets of Rome with cars burning on Piazza del Popolo etc. People spoke of the worst riots in 30 years, recalling the "anni di piombo" (the lead years): the 1970s when the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades. Actually it wasn't like that at all. Ok, it was spectacular but of no real political importance. Order was restored in a few hours, about 100 people got hurt and about twenty got arrested, most of them young and out of town (including from Paris):  it seemed that it was just one more extreme "black bloc" manifestation. These guys are very violent but their violence never gets them anywhere. It didn't have anything to do with the kind of violence Genova experienced during the G8 meeting.

The power game is played elsewhere. Berlusconi, who's very canny, immediately set out to get more deputies on his side. Hunting for deputies and offering them juicy jobs in government and para-statal enterprises. Can he do that? Probably. There are deputies floating out there. Remember: since this summer Berlusconi got into a fight with his erstwhile ally, Fini, the lower house speaker (the Chamber of Deputies). The motions of no-confidence had been engineered by Fini who had gathered followers around him in a new group called the FLI (Future and Freedom in Italy - not yet a party).  But as Fini failed, a lot of his followers got disgruntled with him. In Italy, people don't like losers. Those are the deputies who could decide to join Berlusconi.

Moreover, for a short while, Berlusconi also hoped he could get other people roaming around the centre, notably Pier Ferdinando Casini, the UDC (Union of the Centre) leader. But that didn't work out: a so called "third pole" was promptly created the very next day under Casini's guidance, with support from Fini and leftist Rutelli. It is said that about 100 parliamentarians (from both the Senate and the lower House) have joined in.

So, in the end, Berlusconi might be able to draw to his side 6 to 10 deputies. That could help him control the lower house (he's not worried about the Senate: he's already got it under control). It's probably going to be enough to govern for a few more months - at least until March 2011. Why March? Because that's one of the things everybody knows in Italy but nobody writes about it in the foreign press: newly elected parlamantarians need to last half their 5-year mandate in order to cash in on their (very juicy) pension and benefits. So they have to stay put a full 2 years, six months and one day. That means no elections will take place in Italy before March...

And to think that Berlusconi had been set to govern the full five years of his mandate and had promised to bring "real changes" to Italy - not only clear up the recurrent garbage mess in Naples but bring in reform in all areas, from education to social security. He had a comfortable majority provided him by both Fini and Bossi, the head of the Lega Nord. How could Berlusconi blow it this way? Of course, Fini and Berlusconi bickered this summer, accusing each other of corruption and sexual depravities. Really. No chance that Berlusconi and Fini will ever be friends again. So Bossi remains Berlusconi's one and only ally. If Bossi withdraws his support, you can kiss Berlusconi good-bye.

Will Bossi support Berlusconi? Maybe but Bossi is a difficult man: he wants "Federalism". That means breaking up the central government and giving the power and the money to the regions. Some regions are already fairly autonomous like Sicily, Sardinia and Alto Adige, but what Bossi wants is the North of Italy (Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont) to be fully separated from the rest of the country. His party, the Lega Nord is particularly incensed at all the aid funds going to the (poor) South.

Predictably most Italians don't want Federalism, Berlusconi included. Not only out of a concern for the South but of the management mess Federalism would plunge Italy. How would the central government manage the transition to a totally decentralized treasury system without a breakdown in the system? How would the funds coming from the European Union be managed? The nightmare scenario scares everybody...except Bossi, of course. So he'll push for a vote, but when federalism will come up in Parliament, it will likely be defeated. And that's when a disgruntled Bossi will send Berlusconi home.

When will that happen? It's anybody's guess, except it won't happen before March, for sure...With new elections, can Berlusconi win again? Yes, he can. Because he's managed to pass an electoral law that gives him an unfair advantage, a so-called "premium" (premio di maggioranza): if you get 35% of the votes, you automatically gain a majority position and become the head of the government. Berlusconi has lost a lot of support among Italians but he can probably still obtain with his PDL (Polo delle Libertà) somewhere around 25 to 27% of the votes - so all he needs is an ally out there, maybe even Bossi again (who might get as much as 15%). Just add it up and voilà: you still have Berlusconi on your hands.

The irony is that this unfair electoral law (which also cuts out of Parliament any party with less than 5% of the votes) was passed with Fini's support. That was probably the single biggest mistake in his political career. Now, the "third pole" with Casini at its helm has to change that law asap if it wants to politically survive!

So the real question in Italian politics has nothing to do with motions of no confidence and everything to do with changing the electoral law. Italy has experimented with an electoral system that was supposed to give it a strong government and stability. But now it has become clear to everybody that the experiment has FAILED. It is high time the Italian political class realize this and move to do something about it...

Bottom line, Italy's problems - low productivity and competitiveness, lack of investment and high unemployment - continue unabated. It means that in the next elections politicians will have a hard time finding  support among their voters. People are fed up with ALL their politicians!   

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