Monti's move and the Italian game of politics

Two big announcements have shaken Italian politics up last week: with Monti's resignation and Berlusconi's comeback, a year of positioning on the Italian chessboard is rapidly moving towards a conclusion.

'Guess who's back?' Demotix/Daniele Leone. All rights reserved.'Guess who's back?' Demotix/Daniele Leone. All rights reserved.

On Thursday, Berlusconi said that he was going to stand again and his party's secretary Angelino Alfano announced the Popolo della Libertà (PdL) would withdraw its support for the Monti government… responsibly, after passing the budget which is currently before Parliament. Berlusconi reckoned with this move he would be able to condition the timing of elections and the rhythm of the campaign. He would get to decide when to pull the plug and use the moment most likely to give him a boost. Check.

But like anything political, it is not a simple chessboard with only two players; Berlusconi’s move certainly stymied Monti - but also silenced his own internal opposition which was the centre-left’s best weapon. With his announcement, Berlusconi cleverly put the Partito Democratico (PD) leader, Pierluigi Bersani, in the shade. Bersani had just won the centre-left coalition primaries and the PD was riding high in the polls at 38%. His moment of glory has been short-lived. Now he has to deal with an antagonist who has already gone back to his traditional anti-communist rhetoric using Nichi Vendola, a left-wing figure and LGBT activist, as a frightener to unite the alienated right wing voters. And last but not least, Berlusconi was able to snub President Napolitano and the European institutions who seemed so glad to be rid of him only thirteen months ago.

In this complex game of chess, player Monti made his own move on Saturday. He resigned as prime minister - with effect as soon as the budget gets approved. Now it is Berlusconi who is checked. Monti has taken the initiative – he'll get to decide what will happen next, and most crucially, when. He has also implied that he no longer feels barred from going directly into politics (distancing himself from his previous stance, claiming to wait politely on the sidelines until he is called). Presumably, following a hectic Saturday, his Sunday has been one of reflection on exactly how and with whom he is going to go into politics.

We’re still a long way from the endgame but with the election likely to be set at the end of February, we’re steadily moving towards it.

In the meantime, the country will face a storm from the markets and strong implicit criticism from the European institutions. Already, most European and American papers have laid into Berlusconi as a self-centred danger to his country. The dinosaur he promised to pull out of the hat is himself - a Silviosaur - but the new-old species does not have the resources or the glamour of the 1994 Mk 1 model. At least probably not enough to become prime minister (for the fourth time!). But Berlusconi does have enough appeal and resources to make the life of whoever wins the elections very difficult, and he will try to drive wedges through whatever centrist-centre-left coalition Bersani is able to come up with.

Berlusconi-Nero fiddling as Rome burns is an old image for cartoonists, but last week's events have shown it is still a valid one. But this time, Monti’s countermove shows that the game will be a long and tough one; fascinating for chess buffs but also of life and death importance for Italians and those who live in Italy. It is so much more than a game – even if it has all the appearances of one.

About the author

James Walston is associate professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. He blogs about Italian politics here and tweets @walstonjames.