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Italy's political waiting-room

Mario Rossi Sarah Pozzoli
17 April 2006

Romano Prodi didn't win and Silvio Berlusconi didn't lose. After the sound and fury of Italy's election campaign, the inconclusive outcome of the general election on 9-10 April 2006 – which gave the L'Unione centre-left coalition led by the former European Union president a marginal lead over the centre-right Casa delle Libertà (House of Freedoms) coalition led by the outgoing prime minister – leaves the country's political and economic problems as unresolved as ever. But if the shape of the new government is not yet clear, what does the vote reveal about the challenge of governance it will inherit?

Also by Sarah Pozzoli in openDemocracy:

"The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi"
(April 2005 - with Mario Rossi)

"Who rules Italy?"
(June 2005)

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A failed referendum

L'Unione secured the narrowest of advantages in the 630-seat chamber of deputies with 49.8% of the vote against 49.7% for the Casa delle Libertà, representing a difference of just 25,000 votes. However, this translates into a stable majority in the lower house (348 deputies against 281) - thanks, ironically, to the electoral law pushed through in October 2005 by Berlusconi's government which automatically awards the winning coalition 55% of the seats.

The picture in the 315-seat senate – whose members are elected on a regional basis – is very different. There, L'Unione won a slender majority of 158 seats against 156 (even though the centre-right had 400,000 votes more) - thanks also to a new law; in this case, one imposed by the far-right Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance/AN) which for the first time permitted Italians living abroad to elect their own representatives (and resulted in four of the six senators thus elected belonging to the Prodi coalition).

There are three significant points to make about the election and its results:

  • around 83% of the electorate cast a vote; this was 12% more than the regional elections on 3-4 April 2005, and reversed a long period of declining turnouts.
  • the centre-right got more votes than the centre-left, especially in the richer and most productive northern regions.
  • Berlusconi's grouping Forza Italia (Forward Italy) remains the party with the largest single number of votes - around 24%, significantly ahead of its nearest rival the Democratici della sinistra (Democrats of the Left) with 17.5%.

The conclusion: the referendum against Berlusconi – which is how the opposition sought to define and present this election to the voters - did not work.

In fact, the results were close enough to make Il Cavaliere feel strong enough in the aftermath to resist conceding victory to Il Professore, to ask for a review of votes on the ground of alleged voting irregularities, and then to launch the idea of a German-style "grand coalition" between the major parties on both sides of the political divide. This idea was highly unwelcome to some of his allies (the AN, the Lega Nord [Northern League] and the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e dei Democratici di Centro (Union of Christian and Centre Democrats [UDC]), though part of its purpose may have been to dissuade some of them (the UDC in particular) from joining the centre-left coalition.

Whether any of these gambles succeed, it is certain that the 69-year-old media mogul will continue to play a big role in Italian politics.

A new Prodi government

Before the elections, opinion polls consistently showing that the centre-left held a small but definite lead of a few percentage points gave L'Unione coalition an expectation of victory. These were confirmed by exit polls on the two election-days putting Prodi's coalition around 5% ahead. A week after the elections, the anti-climactic feeling among centre-left leaders and supporters remains – a sentiment of "half-victory" or even an almost-defeat. "An Italy split down in the middle" was the apt summation of respected Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica.

As a result, a new Prodi government – which Il Professore is now busy trying to create in the election's messy aftermath - will live in constant fear of new elections. The likelihood of an early return to the polls is increased not merely by the centre-left's wafer-thin majority in the senate but by the potential fragmentation of the coalition itself. L'Unione contains nine parties of very different shades: from the far-left Rifondazione comunista (which performed well at the polls and emerged as the coalition's third party) to the centre-right Unione Democratici per l'Europa (Udeur) and Antonio di Pietro's Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values). It includes supporters of Nato and opponents of globalisation, gay activists and Catholic moralists, those for and against liberalisation and privatisation. The only point of agreement seems to have been the desire to fight Berlusconi. After he is no longer in power, will anything remain to hold it together?

In this context, it will be difficult for Prodi to acquire the political unity and momentum needed to implement the reforms Italy urgently needs to revivify the stagnant economy that Berlusconi's five-year government has bequeathed. The range of tasks Prodi faces is daunting: in the economic sphere, activating an ambitious programme of cutting taxes, increasing social expenses while keeping the public budget under control; in the social and market arena, reforming labour and energy policy while modernising infrastructure; and in the political world, charting a new course in foreign policy that will restore dignity and credibility to Italy's international profile. In isolation, each of these is a challenge; together they represent a project of major proportions.

What makes Prodi's position even harder is that he is the figurehead of the centre-left coalition, but not of a party. Thus, he does not have a strong institutional back-up and can count on few followers. In these circumstances, the main hope for his coalition's survival lies in awareness of what happened during the previous period when the centre-left was in office, from 1996-2001. The internal divisions among the centre-left in the legislature hastened the government's demise and gave Berlusconi the opportunity he was waiting for. If the left learns from this history, a Prodi government may survive long enough to present its budget for 2007 in the coming autumn-winter – and then develop the confidence and resilience to look ahead beyond the short term.

Also in openDemocracy on Italy's modern politics:

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (August 2005)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush…" (February 2006)

Geoff Andrews, "Italy's election: no laughing matter"
(February 2006)

Geoff Andrews, "Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (March 2006)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (March 2006)

Geoff Andrews, "In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

Beyond the interregnum

Some influential voices on Italy's centre-right are certain that the narrow majority in the senate guarantees early defeats for a Prodi government and a quick return to the ballot-box for Italian voters. They are therefore content for the moment to allow the post-election process to take its course. This will entail a centre-left government assuming office by 28 April, after which both houses of parliament will elect a new president to replace Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (who comes to the end of his seven-year term on 18 May – and announced that at 85 years old he will not seek a renewal of his mandate). Only then can a new prime minister be formally chosen.

Romano Prodi is the most likely candidate to be Berlusconi's successor, but as negotiations continue the latter's floated suggestion of a "grand coalition" offers a seductive alternative to the assumption that Il Professore will be an automatic choice as prime minister. The proposal of such a cross-party government, rejected by Prodi himself, may be a way to introduce a supra-party figure like former EU commissioner Mario Monti into the frame.

Such a scenario would satisfy almost no one. It may, however, be the only way to move Italy forward – by creating sufficient support and consensus to pass an economic reform package that is both necessary and likely to be unpopular, and to introduce a new electoral law to replace the one imposed by Berlusconi. It could also have a further, unplanned benefit: overseeing an end to the Berlusconi-Prodi "couple" whose rivalry and alternation in power has dominated the country's political scene for twelve years, and opening the way to younger leaders more connected to Italian society as it has become.

Italy needs change. Once the current political uncertainty has passed, the best service the country's leaders can offer may be to make way for a new generation able to accomplish it.

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