These are desperate times in Italian politics. The raucous, chaotic and humiliating scenes witnessed in the Italian parliament which brought the fall of Romano Prodi's centre-left government on 24 January 2008 have thrown the country into turmoil. The atmosphere surrounding the end of the government was bad enough, an unpleasant cocktail of abuse, gloating and recrimination. More serious was what this reflected: Italy's debased political class is as remote from the country's citizens as it has ever been. No wonder that commentators have compared Italy's rotting body-politic with the festering rubbish on the streets of Naples. This, then, is not just "another" Italian political crisis: it is systemic.
Geoff Andrews is staff tutor
in politics at the Open University.
He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007).
His The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure will be published by Pluto Press in 2008.
Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings
Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:
"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)
"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)
"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)
"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)
"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)
"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)
"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)
"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)
The government's collapse - precipitated by the resignation on 17 January of a single minister, Clemente Mastella of the tiny Udeur party - has been accompanied by a widespread recognition that the comprehensive economic and political reform that Italy badly needs is now in jeopardy. The unwieldy coalition of Romano Prodi formed after the election of April 2006 had not been wholly ineffective: it had made important progress in reducing the spiralling public deficit, overseeing a decline in unemployment, and taking measures against tax evasion. It retained the support of business leaders and European Union allies. But it suffered from political inertia, and was handicapped by internal divisions that allowed the private interests of small parties to derail its agenda.
The most likely outcome of the crisis is another general election and the return of the former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi to power. To avert this prospect, the president of the Italian republic, Giorgio Napolitano, has launched something of a desperate, last-ditch attempt to keep Italy on the course of reform. Napolitano has invited the speaker of Italy's senate (the upper house of parliament), Franco Marini, to head an interim cross-party government with the purpose of agreeing on a new electoral system.
The existing system, a broadly unwelcome leaving present bequeathed to Italians by Berlusconi shortly before he left office in 2006, gave disproportionate power to small parties and has led to near-paralysis in parliament (where, for example, Prodi's one-seat majority in the senate forced him to manoeuvre and compromise). The attempt to undo Berlusconi's knot, like so many other reforms, has got nowhere. Now Franco Marini is being asked to do in two weeks what Italy's politicians failed to do in the preceding twenty months. One opposition politician has described the task as "mission impossible".
If Marini fails to find a political consensus on electoral reform within the allotted two weeks, the president will be constitutionally obliged to dissolve parliament; and Italy will then go to the polls under the existing system. In the spirit of the times, a crucial fortnight in Italian political history will be marked by machinations, accusations, threats, meaningless gestures, exaggerated promises, splits and shenanigans. With such rich material, the highly successful comic and political blogger Beppe Grillo is likely to increase his own political profile amongst a disenchanted citizenry. In a bitterly divided country in dire need of reform, led by a discredited political class and watched by its dismayed European Union partners, this may be the only consolation Italians can currently find.
The events surrounding Prodi's demise have produced Italy's biggest crisis since the tangentopoli ("bribesville") scandal of 1992. In the aftermath of tangentopoli, the work of the mani pulite ("clean hands") investigators promised Italy a fresh start, a new political system and more transparent government. There were signs of optimism in this period, a mood encouraged by the fracturing of the old political blocs. The democristiani (the Christian Democratic Party) that was most involved in the corruption had virtually collapsed overnight; in the aftermath of the fall of communism, new political formations were emerging on the left. There was even hopeful talk of a new bipolarism, with alternating governments of left and right on the United States or British model.
The hopes turned (mostly) to ashes; in reality, little changed. The Christian Democrats may have fragmented into "centre-left" or "centre-right", but the legacy of their political methodology ( a mix of clientilism, mafia-induced corruption and love of power) remains one of the main obstacles to reform. The event that led to the government's fall is instructive here. Clemente Mastella justified his resignation by referring to the accusations of corruption levelled against him and his wife; but his political future as leader of the family-based (and Vatican-friendly) Udeur party was in doubt if electoral reform proceeded; not surprisingly, he has now joined the centre-right coalition (which expects to win an election if it is held).
Mastella's actions may have precipitated the current crisis, but its deeper roots lie in another Italian political phenomenon: trasformismo, the process whereby changes at the top result only in old political elites ruling under new names. To take just one example, outgoing deputy prime minister Francesco Rutelli - a Green-turned-Radical-turned Christian Democrat - is projected as an up-and-coming figure in the new Democratic Party and a likely negotiator in any forthcoming discussions. Where trasformismo still rules, it is doubtful whether a new electoral law will do anything to undercut the power of parties rather than voters in choosing who governs Italy. No wonder Italian politicians are now regarded by their citizens as - to cite the title of Sergio Rizzo & Gian Antonion Stella's best-selling anatomy of the political elite - La Casta ("the caste").
Mastella's resignation coincided with the sentencing of Salvatore Cuffaro, the governor of Sicily, to five years' imprisonment and a ban from public office for distributing Mafia favours. Cuffaro's promise to be at work as usual the following morning - made to general sympathy from his party and political allies - reflects the contempt for open legal procedures and the scale of the problem facing reformers. True, the governor subsequently responded to pressure by resigning from office on 26 January; but it is his party, the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), which has called for a grand coalition (German-style, this time) to solve Italy's crisis. There cannot be a party anywhere in Europe less capable of delivering such a lofty ambition.
In the absence of reform in this crucial period, only one man (Beppe Grillo apart) will benefit: il cavaliere, Silvio Berlusconi. The former premier never accepted his narrow defeat in the April 2006 elections, and is now organising his troops and demanding early elections to pave his path to a third term in office. In an echo of his threat to make Italy ungovernable after losing office to Prodi's coalition, he has announced his intention to lead a march on Rome if he doesn't get his way, which his critics have interpreted as a Mussolini-like threat to President Napolitano. Berlusconi's relentless populism and opportunism offers Italy only more uncertainty, conflict and even further political degeneration. Moreover, the return of Berlusconi, who has a clear lead in the opinion polls, would be incomprehensible to Italy's allies and would make the country the laughing-stock of Europe.
Franco Marini and two other men - Luca di Montezemolo (leader of the employers' federation, Confindustria) and Walter Veltroni (leader of the Democratic Party) - now stand in his way. Even if no agreement on a new electoral system is reached, Veltroni must start winning the political argument for reform. Since his election as party leader in October 2007, he has failed to impress, and his earlier attempts to include Silvio Berlusconi in discussions over electoral reform have now backfired dramatically. The centre-left as a whole remains afraid of Berlusconi, reflected in its inability even to deliver reform of the media to eradicate his conflict of interests.
In the absence of aspiring statesmen, it could be left to Luca di Montezemolo to play the key role in the coming days. He has consistently argued for economic and political modernisation and has made a last and - in his own word - "desperate" appeal for stability at a time of global recession. In Italy's dilapidated and polarised politics, it may be that someone from beyond the political class will emerge as an influential figure. The stakes are very high, and the choice crystal: short-term populism or long-term reform? Time is running out.