In the last few days political commentators and analysts have depicted the political crisis within the Italian Government involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his now former ally, the Speaker of the Low Chamber Gianfranco Fini, not only as a turning point in Italian politics, but also as probably the last chapter of Berlusconi’s political saga.
Mr Fini, who for 16 years stood at Berlusconi’s side, finally seems to have found a way to reduce to captivity a man whom neither magistrates nor the numerous sexual scandal and corruption allegations have been able to stop. Their political bond dates back to 1994 when, for the first time since the Second World War, a right-wing party was carried into government. At that time both Fini and Berlusconi saw their alliance as an opportunity to take advantage of a moment in which Italy was disrupted by the biggest political-corruption enquiry in its history, the so called Clean Hands (Mani Pulite) inquiry carried out by the pool of Milan based magistrates. Due to this extraordinary situation, Mr Berlusconi was able to presents himself as the homo novus, a savior able to bring new life to Italian politics. He cunningly exploited the anger and disillusion of Italians caused by the broad range of the investigation and through his media empire managed to convey to the Italian public that he was the man for real change. Mr Fini then understood that “Il Cavaliere” was the right horse to bet on and led Italy’s neo-fascists (Alleanza Nazionale) party into an alliance with Berlusconi’s newly founded Forza Italia (literally, Come on Italy!) party.
Last year marked the most important chapter of the Berlusconi-Fini relationship, the merger of the two parties into a leviathan called PdL (People of Liberty). Fini re-branded himself a liberal conservative with a Cameron-like position and, appointed as Speaker of the Lower Chamber (the third highest state position), started to express vocal disagreement with many government positions, clashing with various ministers and complaining about Mr Berlusconi's authoritarian style, his scorn for parliament, and about the prime minister’s habit of backing supposedly corrupt government ministers a priori.
The clash reached its pinnacle in April, when the two literally pointed and shouted at each other between stage and stall seats at a party conference to the utter incredulity of their fellow party activists and journalists. Since then the relationship between them has only deteriorated.
In the last few months Mr Fini has openly criticized the attempt by Berlusconi’s government to introduce a law (commonly known as The Gagging Law) which would have curbed the use of wiretapping by magistrates and would have sent to jail journalists and fined the editors who published information leaked by state attorneys. The bill has not been passed yet, and, because of strong criticism from the opposition and the internal conflict precipitated by Mr Fini’s political current, is undergoing substantial amendment.
The turning point came two weeks ago as rumours of the possible creation of a faction within PdL started spreading, following the umpteenth attempt by the prime minister to save one his protégés. He created a new ministerial position and appointed to it one of his former business associates currently under investigation for corruption. Thanks to a decree introduced by Berlusconi’s minister of justice (Angelino Alfano) that allows ministers to dodge court appearances by pleading to be “too busy”, the freshly appointed junior minister said that he was unable to attend the court hearing, avoiding de facto the magistrate’s prosecution. This move created pandemonium among the opposition (Democratic Party, Italy of Values and the Union of Christian Democrats) and uproar amongst Fini’s supporters, and of course Fini himself openly expressed his disapproval. The new minister then gave up the job and stood trial.
Berlusconi harshly attacked Mr Fini for his opposition, claiming that he should resign because he had failed his duty of guarantor of impartiality as Speaker of the Lower Chamber and accusing his supporters in the PdL of betraying voters.
In a press conference at Palazzo Chigi on July 29th, challenged by reporters, Mr Berlusconi arrogantly affirmed that his internal critics did not have the parliamentary numbers to overturn his government and that the mutineers did not reach 25. In response Mr Fini gave an interview confirming that assessment by apparently surrendering and looking for a compromise with Berlusconi. The prime minister saw an opportunity to get rid once and for all of such a prominent critic and promptly called for meeting of the PdL leadership in order to approve a document to condemn Mr Fini and his fellow-dissenters and expel them for contumacy.
Things, unfortunately for Mr Berlusconi, did not go as he predicted and his calculation about the rebels was quite wrong. The day after public expulsion, Mr Fini announced the creation of a new parliamentary group in the lower house, ‘Futuro e Liberta’ (Future and Freedom) and that it enjoyed the presence of 33 members of parliament, enough to undermine the government’s majority. Mr Fini stated that the new group would be faithful to PdL and would only vote against the government in the case of a clear infringement of the commonly agreed electoral manifesto. But what Mr Fini really meant was that from now on Mr Berlusconi had to seek his approval for any decree or laws that the government plans to introduce.
This new equilibrium was demonstrated on 4th August when the Lower Chamber was called to vote for authorization to legally proceed against Giacomo Caliendo, a junior minister who was accused of being involved in the creation of a secret society, named by the media, P3, in relation with the infamous Masonic Lodge P2, which supposedly plotted to fix judicial and political arrangements, discredit Berlusconi's political opponents and smooth out judges supposed to rule in cases involving the prime minister. The lower house voted by 299 to 229 in the government’s favour but there were 75 abstentions, including most of the Fini’s rebels, and it is clear that they could have defeated the government had they chosen to vote against it.
Mr Berlusconi is safe for now but survives as a prisoner of Gianfranco Fini. His government’s chances of lasting the full mandate are decreasing by the minute and there have been rumours of imminent elections or, as advocated by the opposition, of the creation of a technical government led by the current Minister of the Economy Giulio Tremonti or by the governor of the Bank of Italy Mario Draghi. What is undeniable though, is the weakness and lack of credibility that the persona of Mr Berlusconi has slipped into, a political weakness that clearly creates huge discomfort for the Prime Minister, given his typical way of understanding leadership in politics, based on the idea that the parliament is just a tool to promote and protect his business and that of his associates, downgrading public discourse to a mere “Berlusconi against the world”.
However, even though the clash within the leading party and the government has produced some unexpected results and has significantly reshaped the balance inside the lower chamber, neither the rebels nor Mr Fini have resigned so far. Some FLI members remain in the government covering strategic cabinet positions and Mr Fini, who as Lower House Speaker does not normally vote, must officially stay under the PdL belt.
But another scenario may be waiting in the wings. Mr Fini, even though he has apparently confirmed his support to the government, may be forming a new Centrist group with Christian Democrats and former parliamentarians expatriated from the Democratic Party. It is said that such a coalition would enjoy at least 15% of the vote, becoming therefore a key party necessary to deal with for the creation of a new stable government. In this way the current Speaker would be able to escape from Berlusconi’s sultanate and create his own realm, free from the overwhelming presence of ‘il Cavaliere’.
For his part, Mr Berlusconi may also have another plan. President of the Republic Napolitano's term concludes in 2013 and the prime minister has never hidden his wish to reach the highest position in the Italian Republic. Napolitano’s successor, who, thanks to the immunity law for the four highest representative of the state introduced by Berlusconi’s government, will have the benefit of immunity from prosecution, is elected by members of parliament and not by people. The ability of Il Cavaliere to win “sympathies” amongst every party’s members is acknowledged, whether through his huge charme or less orthodox practices. He could perhaps find an agreement with Fini and become president in mid-term with the support of a large majority.
In the probable eventuality of further aggravation of the crisis between Berlusconi and Fini, the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, is the only person who can dissolve parliament or call for a temporary government due to the lack of an effective coalition. Mr Napolitano witnessed the collapse of the government prima facie before him and decided to go on holiday to the remote volcanic island Stromboli in the Mediterranean Sea. The adamant message to the chambers and to the two rivals is that he won’t take any action for the moment and to wait until the middle of September when the Italian parliament will be functioning normally.
In Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Prof. Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel emerge from their subterranean journey from the volcano on Stromboli. We must hope that such an inspiring location encourages President Napolitano to find a reasonable solution to the ongoing crisis and, maybe, let a crumb of decorum emerge from the bottom of the earth where Italian politics seems firmly embedded.