Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s oversized personality has dominated Italian politics since he was first elected to office in 1994. Despite a struggling economy, an egregious conflict between his business and political interests, a tattered reputation abroad, and, to top it all off, embarrassing sex scandals, media tycoon Berlusconi has managed to keep his hold on the electorate, rising to a position of such unrestrained power that it has some fearing for the Italian democracy.
With Italy’s center-left opposition reduced to an almost permanent state of lethargy, the biggest challenge to Berlusconi’s supremacy is coming from one of his closest political ally, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini. Fini has been working to lay down the foundations of a new Italian right, a synthesis of Gaullism, Sarkozy-ism, and pan-European conservatism, which represents a stark departure from today’s “Berlusconism,” Italy’s brand of right-wing populism.
A simmering discord between Fini and Berlusconi recently erupted into a public clash, which, if protracted, may erode the popularity of the Prime Minister and, some believe, even lead to the dissolution of the legislature and to early elections. Berlusconi’s uncontested leadership of the People of Freedom party (Popolo della Libertà – PDL), and his control of the media, makes it an uphill battle for Fini. Yet, Fini’s will to take on the ruling political dogma may succeed in putting an end to Berlusconi’s uncontested reign. That is if Fini finds the right tone with which to address Berlusconi’s voters. The ongoing parliamentary debate on a highly controversial bill that would severely restrict the use of wiretaps by law enforcement agencies, might offer Fini the first such opportunity.
Fini’s political ascendance to the center stage of Italian politics has been one of the most astounding in the country’s history. From a young, rough-edged, far-right activist – he started out in the late 1960s as a member of Movimento Sociale Italiano-MSI (Italian Social Movement), the party of the hard-core Italian right that rose from the ashes of the defunct Partito Fascista -- Fini has grown into a well rounded, thoughtful, and not-always-easy-to-label, conservative politician. In 1995, as party chairman, he oversaw the dissolution of the MSI into Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), a re-branded rightist party that aimed to shed any last association with Italy’s fascist past.
It was then that his relationship with Berlusconi, who had just been elected Prime Minister for the first time, began to grow closer. From 2001 to 2006, Fini served as Deputy Prime Minister in Berlusconi’s second government. In 2007, Berlusconi declared Fini his successor. In April 2008, under Berlusconi’s auspices, Fini was nominated Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. Later the same year, Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale merged with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia into The People of Freedom-PDL, today’s ruling party.
Until a year ago, the alliance between Berlusconi and Fini led many observers to predict that Fini, who is fifty-eight, would be the man to carry on Berlusconi’s legacy when Berlusconi, seventy-three, retired. Instead, Fini began yet another political transmutation – from Berlusconi’s heir into his nemesis.
Over the course of the last several months, Fini has taken a number of steps to separate himself from the dominant ideology of The People of Freedom-PDL, increasingly beholden to the whims of Lega Nord (Northern League), Italy’s populist, anti-immigration party; Fini advocated for legal immigrants to become eligible to vote and to be given an easier path to citizenship; he spoke out in support of same-sex unions; he defended the judiciary when Berlusconi attacked it; he even admitted to not having the “gift of faith,” a position unheard of among Italian conservatives, traditional allies of the Vatican.
The rift exploded about a month ago, when Berlusconi and Fini almost came to blows during a leadership meeting of The People of Freedom-PDL [VIDEO]. Fini, increasingly sidelined within his party and under relentless attacks by pro-Berlusconi newspapers, criticized the Prime Minister more aggressively than ever before. Berlusconi, visibly enraged, suggested that Fini should leave his position as the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. “Leave if you want to play politics,” shouted Berlusconi, prompting Fini to snap: “Otherwise you will do what? Fire me?” In Italy, the speaker cannot be removed, but must resign voluntarily.
Since then, the ardor within Italy’s ruling coalition has somewhat cooled down, while the substance of the disagreement between Berlusconi and Fini hardened. The truth is that neither side is ready for an all-out confrontation, still unsure of their own relative political strengths. On the surface, it would seem that Berlusconi’s popularity, political standing, and media empire, have Fini cornered. Even among Fini’s former allies, many decided to side with Berlusconi, and only a handful seem ready to follow him and break with the party if need be. For now, Fini says he has no intention of leaving the People of Freedom-PDL, or his position as speaker.
At the same time Fini’s disobedience, combined with his bulletproof right-wing credentials and position as a disaffected insider, may be planting the seed of doubt in the minds of Italy’s large swathe of conservative voters. Could this fracture within the center-right coalition push voters that have, for decades, faithfully stood behind Berlusconi, to reconsider their allegiance?
Political observers think that Fini needs to connect with the electorate on issues that matter to them. Thus far his rebellion appears too preoccupied with high politics to persuade Berlusconi’s voters to break with him. Some suggest that Fini should start pressing on law and order, an issue that has traditionally been dear to the hearts of conservative voters, and on which Berlusconi may have failed to deliver.
Fini has, of late, been critical of the government’s take on crime. He has sided, albeit subtly, with those who believe that Berlusconi’s several attempts at a reform of the justice system were really aimed at easing his own legal problems, with the unintended consequence of crippling, rather than strengthening, the judiciary.
The Senate is now debating a bill, the brainchild of Berlusconi’s closest allies, which would come very close to banning the use of wiretapping by law enforcement agencies, also forbidding journalists to report on the findings of any wiretaps capable of surviving the new restrictions. This bill, which critics say will strike the final blow to Italy’s already hobbled judiciary, has sparked a new altercation between Berlusconi and Fini. Fini openly criticized parts of the proposed legislation this week, in particular the fact that, in its current form, the bill would apply to all ongoing investigations, shutting down many of those that largely rely on the use of wiretaps. Fini’s dissent forced the bill back to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it may or may not undergo revisions (an incensed Berlusconi has hinted to the possibility that the bill might be dropped altogether), before coming to the floor of the Senate for a vote next week (the Chamber of Deputies would follow, potentially turning into yet another stage for Fini’s duel with Berlusconi).
Irrespective of Berlusconi’s next move, it remains unclear whether Fini has the intention, or even just the political clout to stop the bill, to take the battle with the Prime Minister from the realm of the rhetorical into the more tangible—political—level.
Silvio Berlusconi’s political and media machine has, so far, proven invincible, and it is too early to say whether Gianfranco Fini will be able to make a dent in it. At the same time, Berlusconi has seldom appeared as livid as he looks now that he has to squabble with his former protégé, a sign that Fini may be getting under his skin. The Italian right seems on course for months of political infighting, which could, potentially, end Berlusconi’s decades-long dominance, change the face of the Italian conservative movement, and unleash a new, post-Berlusconi, era in Italy.