Romano Prodi's fragile centre

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The last week in Italian politics, since prime minister Romano Prodi offered his resignation on 21 February after losing a crucial foreign-policy vote in the upper chamber of parliament, has been a time of echoes and portents. In the first instance, it has been reminiscent of an earlier era that stretches back long before the narrow election victory of Prodi's coalition in April 2006. The era's characteristic image was Christian Democrat power-brokers pulling up in cavalcades outside the Quirinale and the Palazzo Chigi, (the respective residences of the president of the republic and prime minister) to engage in frenetic, behind-the-scenes bargaining between coalition allies.

In those (cold-war) days, the objective was to knock together coalitions sufficient to keep the communists out of power; now, an ex-communist president, Giorgio Napolitano, has been in the driving-seat, hearing delegations from all the leading parties. From the three main options available to him - to reinstate Prodi with the same government team, to call fresh elections, or to go for a government of wide interests, a "grand coalition" of the parties of the left and right - he was persuaded, on the morning of 24 February, to give Prodi another go.

This followed the signature by all nine party leaders of a twelve-point loyalty programme drawn up by Prodi in the aftermath of the government's defeat in the senate over the issue of whether Italian troops should stay in Afghanistan as part of the western, anti-Taliban coalition. The one-seat majority held by the government in the senate was lost when two dissident leftwingers - a Trotskyist member of Rifondazione Comunista (refounded communists) and an independent communist-pacifist - abstained.

The recriminations directed towards the left following the vote tell only part of the story, however. Giulio Andreotti was one of two "life senators" who abstained, despite earlier indications that he would support the government. Thus Andreotti, the 88-year-old "prince of darkness" - seven-times prime minister and proven mafia collaborator - was once again pulling the strings of power.

Indeed the story of the Prodi government's demise and temporary reprieve is more fully explained by the conflict between what can be called the "old centre", that of the democristiani (Christian Democrats) and the aspiration of constructing a new radical centre capable of reforming Italy's weak and battered polity. The signs do not look good.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), and an associate editor of Soundings. The Italian version of his latest book, Un Paese anormale, is launched in Rome in March 2007

Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi's – and Berlusconi's – last shout? " (August 2003)

"Bologna's lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (April 2006)

"Sicily's other story" (May 2006)

"The Azzurri's message to Italy" (July 2006)

"The slow revolution" (October 2006)

"The strange case of Mario Scaramella"
(12 December 2006)

The price of unity

With Italy at its most divided since the end of fascism, reflected in the knife-edge April 2006 election, and with regional divisions and differences over broader ethical questions such as civil unions, the battle for the centre-ground has become intense. The Union of Christian Democrats now occupies an important  space between government and opposition, and its attempts to shape the realignment of the centre are growing. The centre-left, by contrast, has invested its hopes in a creating a new Democratic Party, with elements drawn from the two main parties, as one "great reformist party" capable of changing Italy. Yet one of the consequences of the government's slim majority is that it will have to rely increasingly on the old forces of the conservative centre.

The politics of the former Christian Democrats, (DC) - the "old centre" - was based on a culture of clientilism, favours and the partitocrazia, in which party leaders, (these "men of power", as Pier Paolo Pasolini referred to them), consolidated their own party interests at the heart of the state. As we now know it also included significant corruption in the form of accepting bribes for contracts, Mafia conspiracy and CIA collusion. Despite the fact that the DC fell under the Tangentopoli crisis and the work of the "clean hands" investigations led by Antonio di Pietro and other magistrates in the early 1990s, this culture lives on in many aspects of Italian politics and remains the biggest obstacle to change.

The UDC has to be seen in this light. The party's command of around 4-6% of the vote (and a power-base in Sicily, where the governor, Salvatore (Totò) Cuffaro, is currently being investigated for mafia collaboration) means that it can still influence the future of Italian politics. Moreover, its departure from Berlusconi's coalition has both contributed to the divisions in the opposition and presented a challenge to centre-left hopes of a progressive realignment.

True, Prodi at present doesn't need the UDC's support, but the party's current role is a further strong sign of the return of the old centre. The others range from the Vatican's intervention over civil (including gay) unions - which found common cause among some of Prodi's own coalition members - to dubious amnesties for white-collar criminals. The justice minister, Clemente Mastella (who leads Udeur, a smaller Christian Democrat group within the government) has been a central figure in this political trajectory. Marco Follini, the UDC's former leader (who broke from the party following his criticisms of the Berlusconi government), has also become an important player in negotiations since Prodi's initial resignation. He has now pledged his support to the government - but this will come at a price.

Old vs new centre

As the Prodi government attempts to reassemble and secure a vote of confidence in the senate in order to resume its work, much of its future stability will depend on the extent to which it can keep its reform agenda alive. This in turn will require a commitment to the politics of the "new centre" on a range of issues: electoral reform, civil unions, anti-corruption measures, getting the balance right between liberalisation and social justice, reforming the media and continuing a distinctive foreign policy which combines respect for Italy's international commitments with the need for a stronger European perspective on the middle east. The dispute over a proposed United States base in the northern city of Vicenza (one of the triggers which led to the senate defeat) is not a simple left-right issue and carries many local concerns as well as implications for Italy's broad peace movement. The government may well have to be more flexible on this.

The politics of this "new centre" has perhaps found its biggest expression in the move towards a new Democratic Party which is being driven by the two main parties of Prodi's majority: the Catholic Margherita (Daisy) and the ex-communist Left Democrats (DS). There remain significant differences between the parties, each of which are reluctant to surrender its own identity. More significantly, the two main power-brokers (and deputy prime ministers), Francesco Rutelli of the Margherita and Massimo D'Alema of the DS, are hardly emblematic of the new movements for reform; indeed, they have managed to alienate rather than engage some of the more significant ones, such as the Girotondi. Many fear that the dominant interests of the existing parties will strangle the putative new party at birth.

This is now the main problem that will face a restored Prodi government. In very difficult circumstances, the post-April 2006 coalition has overseen encouraging indicators of economic recovery and ways to reduce the public-spending deficit. It managed to pass the new budget law, the finanziaria, despite much opposition from within as well as beyond its coalition. Yet every piece of major legislation will now be hotly contested, with implications for the government's reform agenda. Italy needs radical reform but the forces of conservatism are closing in.