An Italian election race between bank scandals and ambitious pledges

If they are anything like what has happened so far, we can expect the last two weeks before the Italian elections to be eventful, and full of surprises.

Former Italian PM and current candidate Silvio Berlusconi. Demotix/Giacomo Quilici. All rights reserved.Former Italian PM and current candidate Silvio Berlusconi. Demotix/Giacomo Quilici. All rights reserved.

Italian politics are, as always, full of surprises. And Italy's former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has become a master at introducing surprising (and shocking) slogans into his political campaigns.

After saying that fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, apartt from his racial laws, did “good things”, he recently stated that if he was re-elected to Palazzo Chigh (the seat of the Italian government) he would reimburse the much hated housing tax (IMU) back to the Italians, either in cash or straight to their bank account.

In this fierce election campaign, a big scandal has recently hit the main centre-left party, the Democratic Party (PD), after a big hole has been discovered in the finances of the world's oldest bank (founded back in 1472), the Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), while the local and national political leaders have been stating that Italian banks are solid and would not be hit by crisis or any other trouble.

MPS is under investigation for covering up losses on derivatives and paying over the odds for its €9bn (£7.8bn) purchase of Banca Antonveneta in 2007. Also, there are speculations about a possible network of bribes and kickbacks requiring further inquiry.

What makes this case explosive are the bank’s close connections with the Italian political left, especially the front-runner PD led by Bersani. Also, the concept that some of the revenue from tax hikes imposed by the outgoing Monti administration may be used to rescue a bank such as the MPS is harmful for both the PD and the centre party led by Monti.

This scandal is fuelling Berlusconi's chances, with his PdL-Northern League coalition running at 26% in the polls, this favouring a split result and unstable government, as Bersani would be unable to run the country. With his coalition only around 33%, he needs the support of Monti and his Civic Choice list (12%).

In less than two weeks Italians will decide who will run the country after the excesses of Berlusconi's era and Monti's one-year administration, which was mostly devolved to avoid default through a mixture of spending cuts and rising taxes. While the MPS scandal has certainly cut some of the popular support for the centre-left PD, Berlusconi's aggressive television campaign against Monti's “government of taxes” and “inefficient centre-left led by Pierluigi Bersani” (secretary and leader of the PD) is increasing support for his People of Freedom (PdL) coalition. Among other things, being the President of Milan FC football team, the purchase of star player Mario Balotelli has boosted his popularity among Milan supporters - this move could turn into a soaring consensus for him at the February elections.

Consequently the former Prime Minister is reducing the divide between him and Bersani (less than 5 percentage points, it appears), potentially opening the path for an unstable panorama in the Italian Parliament. This may be the case especially in the Senate, where seats are assigned regionally, and that is why the most important fights in the upcoming elections will be disputed in Lombardy, Lazio and Sicily, given their population and their weight in the Italian institutions.

Although poll intentions cannot be published for the moment in the Italian mass media, is seems that while Bersani's coalition and Monti's list (a mix of entrepreneurs, such as Ferrari chief Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, professionals and well-known politicians, such as the former allies of Berlusconi, Pierferdinando Casini and Gianfranco Fini) are losing potential votes in recent weeks, Berslusconi's PdL-Northern League coalition and Beppe Grillo's anti-system, the innovative Five Star Movement are gaining support – in Beppe's case, this is also the result of him running on tour in public squares across Italian cities to promote revolutionary ideas, such as significantly tackling corruption and curbing politicians' salaries.

In sum, the Italian political landscape seems very variegated and diverse. And the appalling surprise is that once again, Italians will not have the chance to vote for their favourite candidates individually, because since a 2006 electoral law promoted by Northern League MP Mr Calderoli, voters are only expected to choose a party list.

Although all parties have pledged to change this ridiculous law, evidence shows that none of them is interested in implementing this idea, since this gives them the de facto power to decide who will get a seat in Parliament. It is in fact political parties and their leaders who have already chosen on behalf of everyone, by writing a list of (often established) politicians who will be elected in order, according to the number of votes their party receivess.

Speculations say that a Monti-Bersani coalition is still the most likely scenario following the elections, as Monti's group may reveal itself to be essential for governing in the Senate, which has equal power to the lower chamber in passing laws. But it remains to be seen what Berlusconi will be able to do and pledge in the next few days. The Cavaliere is, after all, full of surprises.

About the author

Giuseppe Lenzo has an MA in International Relations from the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University (UK). He has joined and arranged EU-funded international projects and he has also been educated in Italy and Spain. He has published commentaries about Italian politics and European affairs on university papers, online magazines and blogs in the UK and Italy.