Who lost Italy?

So Italy finally has a new government. The Democratic Party’s Enrico Letta was sworn in last night (Australian time) at the head of a grand coalition by president Giorgio Napolitano.

In one respect the centre-left has emerged even worse off than I suggested the other day. Although the centre-right has taken several positions in the ministry, including Angelino Alfano as deputy prime minister, that does not include its leader, Silvio Berlusconi. He will gain the benefits of his party’s participation while remaining free to destabilise the government from outside – an opportunity that, on past form, he is quite likely to take advantage of.

It remains to be asked, could it have worked out differently? After all, the centre-left won the election, with a substantial majority (courtesy of the electoral system) in the lower house: logically, its (then) leader Pier Luigi Bersani should have become prime minister. Whose fault was it that he didn’t?

As always, there are plenty of might-have-beens: if only Napolitano had not been so close to the end of his term, if only Bersani and 5-Star leader Beppe Grillo had not developed such a strong dislike of each other, if only some of Berlusconi’s prosecutions had proceeded more speedily.

But it seems to me there was one critical point. It came a month ago, on Thursday 28 March, when Bersani told Napolitano that he couldn’t form a government. According to the reports at the time, he said that following his discussions with other parties there were “difficulties deriving from objections or conditions which I did not consider acceptable.”

We can’t really apportion blame because we don’t know exactly what Bersani said: whether it was (a) “I can’t form a government that could guarantee winning a vote of confidence in the Senate,” or (b) “I’m not willing to make the attempt to form a government and try to win a vote in the Senate.” (Or at least we can’t tell from the English-language reports; maybe someone who follows the Italian media might be able to pin it down better.)

If it was (a), then Napolitano is to blame for not asking him to try. If it was (b), then it’s Bersani’s own fault that he didn’t make it to the top job.

The point is not that a minority centre-left government would have won a vote of confidence: it might have, which was reason enough to try. But even if it was overwhelmingly likely to fail (and I freely concede that Bersani was in a better position to judge that than I am), it still made sense to venture forth – because it was always likely that the alternative would lead to precisely where it has in fact led, to Bersani losing control of his party and his successors being forced into coalition with their worst enemy.

Forming a minority government would have put the onus on Grillo’s populists to vote with the centre-right to bring it down. Maybe they would have done so – we’ll never know – but even if they did the outcome from the centre-left’s point of view could hardly have been worse.

As I said, it might not have been Bersani’s choice. If Napolitano demanded a guarantee of a Senate majority – which clearly could not be provided – then it was the president who effectively ensured that a grand coalition would be the outcome. He may well have judged that at a time of crisis that was what Italy needed.

If so, let’s hope he was right.



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