Italian impasse: week 5

The World is Not Enough wishes all our readers a very happy Easter. Not all politicians are on holidays, however, so it’s time to have another look at the hitherto unsuccessful process of forming a new government in Italy. (See previous report here.)

Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who has a majority in the Chamber of Deputies but not in the Senate, was offered a commission last week by President Giorgio Napolitano to try to put together a government. Despite saying that only a mentally ill person would want to govern Italy, he agreed to make the attempt, but on Thursday he confessed himself beaten and handed the task back to the president.

Only two other groups can give Bersani a Senate majority: either the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, or the populist 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo. The first he can get but doesn’t want; the second he wants but can’t get.

Negotiations with the populists were apparently an unproductive exercise, made more frustrating by the fact that they insisted on carrying them out in the public eye, providing live streaming to the internet. Vito Crimi, the 5-Star Movement’s Senate leader, said “At best, we can vote for some measures. But confidence, no.”

So Napolitano yesterday spent another day in consultation with the various political leaders to see if some sort of agreement could be reached. The only announcement made afterwards was that the president would take further time to reflect.

This is now dangerous territory for Bersani. What he really wants is a minority government that could win a confidence vote in the Senate and then be tolerated by the populists. That would give him the option of fresh elections whenever that tolerance ran out, in which he would have the advantage of incumbency and the populists would presumably be blamed by the electorate for creating deadlock.

But with Berlusconi persistently offering the option of co-operating in a majority government – and promising that he and his partners are willing to serve under Bersani – it would be hard for the president to justify a minority government, particularly when there is no guarantee the populists would even let it get to first base. (Their rhetoric suggests they would abstain on a vote of confidence, but there’s no assurance on that.)

A threat of early elections may be an effective tactic against the populists, but the threat of a grand coalition isn’t, since at a stroke it would make them the official opposition and boost their standing even further.

The president also has the option of trying to find a non-partisan figure who could lead another interim government of technocrats. But the major parties have rejected that idea, and even if it were accepted it would only amount to kicking the problem a bit further down the road.

As the impasse continues, it strengthens the hand of Bersani’s rivals within his Democratic Party, notably Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence. One of them may be willing, with understandable reluctance, to cut a deal and put up with Berlusconi on at least a temporary basis; they might also feel that they have a better chance at winning over the populists, much of whose animus seems to be directed personally at Bersani.

If neither happens, and the refusal of the centre-left to countenance an alliance with Berlusconi leads to fresh elections, then the electoral calculus runs the other way: they are more likely to be blamed for their intransigence, and voters next time might give the centre-right a majority.

But Bersani is not the only one with internal problems; some of the populists are also chafing under Grillo’s leadership and blaming him for turning down a historic opportunity to support a reformist government. If Berlusconi manages to seize the opportunity to return to office (and thereby presumably derail the various prosecutions and lawsuits against him), they won’t be happy.

There’s the further complication that the two established parties, and the centre-left in particular, would like to change the electoral law before any fresh election, since they blame it for having created the mess in the first place. But of course the underlying problem is that Italians voted in roughly equal proportions for three different groups that are unable to co-operate. The Senate result simply reflects that (the Chamber result doesn’t: the centre-left’s majority there is an artificial construct).

Rigging the rules to frustrate that outcome might work as a short-term fix, but ultimately the fault is with the politicians, not the system.

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