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Deepening Italian crisis: who reaps the benefits?

Italy's opposition has not gained in prestige due to Berlusconi's decline and the economic, political and social crisis afflicting the country. Into this political void the Roman Catholic church has stepped.
Carlo Ungaro
14 October 2011

Last May saw  an unprecedented revolt by the Italian electorate, from which the governing majority emerged visibly humiliated and greatly weakened. The Opposition parties, however, excepting those at the very margins, did not improve their performance either: what emerged was a political void waiting to be filled. Some observers believed that this would be an occasion for the Roman Catholic Church to re-establish its political supremacy in Italy. Recent events seem to indicate that this is, indeed, happening, and the Church has recently come out – with surprising clarity and energy – against the Berlusconi Government. This could be a direct consequence of what some have called the "Italian Spring", referring to the remarkable 'voters rebellion' in May of this year.

The long statement issued by the president of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), though never mentioning Mr. Berlusconi by name, was a clear and eloquent denunciation of  the Prime Minister’s lifestyle as well as the Government’s  inaction on issues of vital importance. The statement  caused  a considerable flurry, and few commentators  gave any credit to the ruling party’s  (and the public television’s) version according to which the Bishops’ criticisms were levelled across the board at “all political actors”.

Italy’s financial and economic situation, is extremely fragile and constantly deteriorating in spite of (or perhaps precisely because of) hasty and uncoordinated corrective measures steamrollered through Parliament by an already beleaguered Government. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s legal problems have been accumulating to the point of sending him scurrying around Europe to avoid confrontation with Italy's judicial system. His government  recently lost  a crucial vote in Parliament and will have to  seek a “vote of confidence” the outcome of which is far from secure.

All this has raised the question on whether the all too brief “Italian Spring”, which many thought would soon fall victim  to  a political situation which, in these past weeks  has been visibly drifting from Italian comedy to Greek tragedy is, instead, destined to bear fruit... It is generally assumed, in Italy and abroad, that the Berlusconi government,  as well as the political organization he created and its allies are in deep trouble and risk either losing  their majority in Parliament or, at least,  facing  the next political elections (possibly in 2012, and at the latest in 2013) from a position of great disadvantage.

The natural corollary to this axiom should be that the main opposition parties of the Left and the Centre are rejoicing, planning for an early overthrow of the government and already savouring the satisfaction of  returning to power. Both the axiom and its corollary, however, are flawed. The opposition, following last May’s events, is facing its own growing credibility gap with the electorate. Any assumptions about politics as usual therefore end up distorting the true nature of the Italian crisis.

Some observers have ventured to suggest that, after these unexpected and highly significant political events, the Roman Catholic Church, ever present in the Italian political scene, might be the first to step into the resulting political void.

This, indeed, seems to be happening although it must be understood that the Roman Catholic hierarchy never acts with undue haste. While the clarity and vehemence of the CEI’s statement are exceptional enough, it would be a mistake to expect any immediate follow-up.

This new development adds yet another skein to the already complex tissue of Italian politics, which, never easy to  analyse, now appears permeated with even greater complexity. It further raises a rather paradoxical question in that  the intervention of the Church, not exactly a model of liberal democracy, could actually end up saving the democratic structure of the Italian Republic from the risk of Italy's sliding into a form of 'soft', bourgeois neo-fascism. This danger appeared quite  real some months back and has not yet totally subsided, now that this government, with its virtual monopoly on the media, feels itself cornered and indeed the victim of internal and international “plots”.  With all the real and urgent problems facing the country, the Government is currently pushing a Bill through Parliament which would significantly curtail the freedom of the press. This law  is exclusively designed to protect the Prime Minister from excessive  media exposure, and has nothing to do with the ongoing financial, economic and political crisis.

One of the current majority’s  rearguard actions consists in the issuance of dire warnings to the tone of “if not Berlusconi, who?”, implying that the Italian electorate is irretrievably right wing, and that, therefore, an electoral process taking place in an atmosphere of institutional crisis, could lead to  the election of right-wing adventurists and populists.

The Italian electorate, however, has not always been right wing by any means (it is enough to remember that for over four decades Italy hosted the largest European Communist Party outside of the Soviet Bloc) and cannot be defined as such now: the May events referred to above (a massive anti-establishment vote at four referenda and mayoral elections in Milan and Naples)  were inspired by the left and not the right.

Elections, whether held in 2012  or in 2013,  will assuredly be unpredictable, and the drift of political events in Italy over the next months will be interesting to observe. The only prediction that can safely be made is that  a 'Catholic' electorate will make its presence felt, perhaps even with the creation of a  political party or organization of its own, and that the Italian political scene, static for such a long time, will return to its dynamic traditions.

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