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Has Berlusconi reached the end of the road?

Having narrowly survived a vote of confidence, the Berlusconi government remains unstable. Carlo Ungaro develops three scenarios that could emerge.
Carlo Ungaro
12 January 2011

With their typical and incurable penchant for over dramatisation, the Italian media and many political commentators had dubbed December 14, 2010 “the day of reckoning”. Many firmly believed that, on that fateful day, the Berlusconi Government would lose a vote of confidence and be compelled to resign, thus finally ushering in a new political era.

The Prime Minister instead, using tactics which many decried as “shameful”, was able to attract a sufficient number of vacillating parliamentarians to his cause and survived the vote of confidence by the narrow margin of three votes. This was remarkable considering that his majority just a few months back had seemed virtually unassailable.

The really important events, however, took place not within the “Palazzo” – as Italians contemptuously call the seats of power – but rather in the streets of Rome. A demonstration called by students exposed the City centre to episodes of violence unheard of since the seventies which caught the nation by surprise, revealing the extreme anger of the younger generations as well as their growing disaffection with the Machiavellian manoeuvrings which characterise the Italian political scene.

Whatever his shortcomings, real or perceived, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in power for the most part of the past sixteen years has succeeded in forging much of Italy’s social reality and perceptions to his own image. If on the one hand recent events had led some to believe that he had come to the end of his remarkable political career, others did not hesitate to assert that it would be a bit early to start trotting out his political obituary, since he had given signs of a remarkable survival instinct several times in the past.

There is however no doubt that even up to a few days before the vote Berlusconi and his closest entourage appeared ill at ease, more irritable than usual and even beset by a sense of panic, as shown by their renewed and ever more violent attacks on hostile media, allegedly “communist inspired”, whose criticism of the Government has been defined as “anti-Italian” by the Prime Minister himself. Frequent references were also made to an alleged “international anti-Italian conspiracy” supported by the international media. To prove the existence of this supposed “foreign conspiracy” a variety of allegations were brought into play, such as the insistence on the part of the international press on publicising “negative” stories about Italy, for example the garbage scandal in Naples or the Prime Minister’s sexual escapades.

It might be entertaining, but in the long run, fatuous and useless to sift through all the events and statements which have typified these days, some verging on the farcical, such as the shouting match, using raunchy epithets in the Neapolitan dialect, held between Alessandra Mussolini, the “Duce’s” granddaughter, and one of Berlusconi's former beauty queen cabinet ministers, recently dubbed by Der Spiegel “the world’s most beautiful minister”. This, as well as other episodes, indicates that there is trouble brewing in Berlusconi’s gynaeceum; for beauty queens as a rule seem unwilling to obediently toe the party line.

The basic situation though apparently complex can be defined by a few fundamental guidelines: The opposition parties, loud in their disapproval of Berlusconi, would, in reality, prefer to see the Government last a while longer, because they feel politically insecure and fear defeat should early elections be called.

The Prime Minister himself, though quite sure of victory, would also prefer to avoid elections, fearing the apparent surge in the popularity of his allied party, the Northern League, which, for its part, would instead be very glad to see the fall of the government, knowing that they would emerge with renewed strength in the event of early elections.

At least three possible scenarios emerge from this unpleasantly chaotic atmosphere:

By very aggressively continuing in his campaign to pursue and purchase the votes of insecure parliamentarians, Berlusconi could weather the storm and continue until 2014. At that date a successor will have to be found for president Napolitano, who will have reached the end of his mandate, and Berlusconi would have a good chance to be elected President by a joint session of the Italian Parliament. This solution may seem rather unlikely, but is certainly not impossible.

A more likely scenario, the one pursued, sometimes obliquely, more often openly, by the Prime Minister’s main ally, the Northern League, would have Berlusconi handing in his resignation to president Napolitano, acting on the assumption that the President will call for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections. Those very opposition political forces who are clamouring for Berlusconi's resignation fear this outcome because they feel that a coalition between Berlusconi and the xenophobic, racist Northern League would almost certainly win the elections, bringing Berlusconi back into power, albeit under the League's thrall.

The only way in which Berlusconi can be defeated would be through the creation of a ‘national unity’ caretaker transitional government, perhaps under the leadership of a non-political figure, to last out the remaining years of the legislature. This is probably the solution also favoured by president Napolitano – for there is no love lost between him and Berlusconi – but it risks being stymied by the divisions which beset the opposition political parties, who seem intent on an almost suicidal campaign destined to discourage any attempt at unity. Berlusconi’s attitude is ambiguous: on the one hand he has repeated his opposition to early elections, but, at the same time, he has been multiplying his appearances on television and has refurbished all his old electoral slogans against “Communists in Cashmere sweaters” - who allegedly have infiltrated the judicial system and are out to get him.

In this volatile, unpredictable and perhaps ultimately dangerous situation, it would be useful to shift the focus of analysis to the role played by the Roman Catholic Church, embodied by the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), whose interference in Italian political life has become increasingly pervasive and forceful, filling, as it were, a preoccupying political and institutional void.

The Vatican, viewed from Rome, appears far more intriguing and interesting – some would even say sinister - than is generally recognized. Outsiders – even journalists and commentators who have lived in Rome for some time - seldom fully appreciate the burdensome weight that the Vatican, the Holy See and the Church (three quite distinct realities) represent in the complex, sometimes comically ritualised Italian political game. A review of the attitudes and moves of the Roman Catholic authorities over the past months and years could bring about a deeper understanding of the grave –even epochal – current state of political upheaval in Italy.

The suffocating grip that the Catholic hierarchy has and keeps on the Italian political and social scene, beginning, of course, with the main sources of information, needs to be understood. Italian public radio and television, even in the very rare programmes which are critical of the government, dare not contradict or criticise the Vatican’s line on the principal and most sensitive issues. This is of particular significance in a monoglot society in which foreign sources of information are ignored.

It should be understood that, by his erratic behaviour (i.e. affairs with young girls of dubious reputation, occasional use of blasphemous language, etc.), Berlusconi has actually played into the hands of the Catholic Church, which, by shifting from attitudes of condemnation to expressions of support has been able to obtain privileges and to prevent the discussion of sensitive topics in parliament.

At this stage, in an attitude chillingly reminiscent of the early years of fascism, the Church seems rather inclined to favour the continuation of the present government, using the votes of one of the opposition parties, the UDC, whose leader, Ferdinando Casini, with the shy smile of an unfrocked priest, could well be the political personality most favoured by the Church to take over from Berlusconi when the time is ripe.

The Northern League has practically issued an ultimatum: if the government cannot obtain a credible majority by the end of January, it would be best to have new elections. The tough, competent Minister for the Economy has indirectly made it clear that no money would be available further to purchase favours and votes, and this seems to put Berlusconi in a weakened position, unless Casini, encouraged by the Vatican, should step in, abandoning his opposition allies and thus ensuring a solid majority.

This solution also has risks, because the Northern League has stated that it would not be ready to share power with the UDC, unless Casini’s party gives assurances that it will make vital concessions in the League’s struggle to pass laws transforming Italy’s structure into a federal system.

The situation is far from clear and seems to get murkier by the day. Perhaps by the end of January a solution will be found, but the ensuing political scene will be more fragile and volatile than ever.

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