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After the fall of Berlusconi, who reaps the benefits?

The Catholic Church is seizing the advantage offered by the debacle suffered by almost all the Italian political parties, and therefore appears set to play a growing role in Italy’s political life, ending up as the principal, though perhaps occult, arbiter of future decisions and orientations.

In the months of May and June of the current year, a political upheaval – scarcely noticed abroad – took place in Italy. A grossly disobedient electorate ignored warnings, threats and blandishments from the four main political forces (Berlusconi’s Party and the Northern League on the right, the Centrist coalition and the Democratic Party on the left), casting massive majority votes for candidates outside the political mainstream in both the Neapolitan and Milanese municipal elections. That same electorate, a scarce two weeks later, repeated its defiance on a national scale by voting – again with a massive majority – in favour of four referenda openly opposed by the Right and only tepidly supported by the Centre and Left.

Some commentators – in reality very few indeed – speculated that the Roman Catholic Church, slightly marginalised by the secular right wing parties in power, would seize the opportunity offered by this debacle of organized politics to regain the central role it has habitually played in Italian politics. 

As the Berlusconi administration wound to its unhappy end, many of the party faithful started abandoning the ship. This growing erosion was significant enough, but even more so was the circumstance that most of the defectors, including one of the most glamorous and “faithful” of Mr Berlusconi’s political gynaeceum, appeared to be drifting towards the one centrist party – the “U.D.C.” – which has constantly asserted its  staunch Catholic  obedience, under the leadership of darkly handsome Pier Ferdinando Casini. Some comments were also raised by the sudden reappearance on the public scene of old stalwarts of the so-called “First Republic”, long dormant relicts of the defunct “Christian Democratic Party”, which led Italy for over four decades after World War II. They also seemed to be attracted by Casini, on whom, perhaps, the Church is pinning its political hopes for the future.

The analysis of Italian politics always reveals situations of far greater complexity than expected. The fall of Berlusconi and the possible end of 'Berlusconismo' or even of the 'Second Republic' are important events, but even more significant are the medium and long term consequences of Mr Berlusconi’s long awaited downfall and the creation of a competent but potentially fragile  'technical' Government.

The stark contrast between the rigid sobriety of the Monti government and its predecessor seems to have overawed some commentators who  - with the exception of the 'Northern League', and a group of diehard Berlusconi nostalgics – are pouring praise, largely deserved but rather extravagant and premature, on the new born cabinet.True, some criticism was raised  for the really small number of  female ministers (only three) that it includes, but it is easy to point out that the three women in the Monti cabinet are figures of undisputed competence and are at the head of  key Ministries, while Berlusconi’s female cabinet ministers  were essentially decorative, patently incompetent and certainly did not enhance the role of Women in Italy.

There are other points on which this Government is already receiving critical comments, but most of these criticisms can be rebuffed. Some, for example, point out the extremely conservative stance shown by most of the leading ministers, and it has even been hinted that, finally, some of Berlusconi’s erstwhile campaign promises could end up being fulfilled by Monti (or “the Professor” as he prefers to be called): this is quite true, but it has to be considered that Parliament is still dominated by those elected in the Berlusconi landslide of 2008, and that any legislation going in a more “progressive” direction would fail to pass.  Some have also been saying that what took place was against all democratic rules, and was, actually, a business and finance oriented “coup d’état”, placing, in key government positions, bankers, businessmen, and high ranking officials (an Admiral and an Ambassador), thus neglecting the weaker sectors of civil society. This particular complaint is making the rounds in the international media, but it is unjustified: there was no “coup” and constitutional legality has been and is being respected. 

There are further considerations, however, that need to be more fully analysed, also because they are basically intertwined. Berlusconi, in reality, has not been “defeated”, and though his party has pledged support for the new Government, it still is, at least apparently, in control of both houses of Parliament, and Berlusconi has been alternating pledges of support with dire threats of withdrawing support should the government deviate from its initial programme. The potential fragility of the Government, however, appears tempered in the light of the re-emergence of the Catholic Church, which, after many years in the shadows, appears again as a determining factor in Italian politics.

The Church never could approve of Berlusconi’s flamboyant style, but it did lend its support in exchange for a growing number of benefits: this, in the long run, upset the rank-and-file faithful, and, after the governing parties’ defeat last May, it seemed inevitable that the Catholic Hierarchy would look elsewhere for a political force worthy of its support. The signals were many, far too numerous to go into at this stage, and became ever more obvious at the growing number of defections from Berlusconi’s party in the waning weeks of his government. These defections, which at the time were very visible mainly because they tended to undermine Berlusconi’s parliamentary majority, have probably continued virtually unobserved, strongly limiting the likelihood of Berlusconi making good his threat of toppling the Monti government “with a snap of the fingers”.

The perceived drift of “Catholic” members of Berlusconi’s erstwhile party to the centre, is likely to leave the Church as ultimate, albeit indirect, arbiter of the Government’s future.

It is significant that the very first international leader met by Italy’s new Prime Minister has been Pope Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church is evidently beginning to seize the advantage offered by the debacle suffered by almost all the Italian political parties in May 2011, and therefore appears set to play a growing role in Italy’s political life, ending up as the principal, though perhaps occult, arbiter of future decisions and orientations. 

The decisive role of the Church in Italian politics is not new, and the Vatican's interference in Italian politics has prevailed since the early Carolingian days.

As Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, in his “Discourses” in the early Sixteenth Century:  

“Our first debt to the Church and her priests is that, thanks to them, Italians have become irreligious and wicked. But we owe still a greater debt, for the Church has kept and still keeps this country divided."

Half a millennium on, this reality still obtains.

About the author

Carlo Ungaro is a former Italian diplomat. He spent sixteen years serving in Afghanistan.  Between 2000 and 2007, he served as political adviser to the Italian led ISAF forces in Herat


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