By Tom Gill
Is it the beginning of the end for Silvio Berlusconi? Reports of his political death have been much exaggerated before. But this time the odds have decidedly shortened.
A string of sex and corruption scandals, attacks on press freedom and a disastrous economy have plagued the billionaire premiere for months. But Berlusconi’s biggest headache has been the falling out with his long-time ally Gianfranco Fini.
This saga has played across the newspapers and TV screens, hitting his poll ratings and confidence in the government, and now potentially threatens his 16-year political career.
Last week the Berlusconi-Fini match reached its climax when the prime minister moved to expel him and three of his allies from the People of Liberty party, which Fini co-founded. In response, 33 of Fini’s supporters in the lower house set up a breakaway faction, in theory depriving the government of its majority. Ten members of the upper house are planning to do the same.
Fini said the faction would continue to support Berlusconi but only if, among other measures, his coalition drops legislation tailored to the prime minister’s personal requirements, such as attempts to extend his immunity from prosecution in the courts.
Fini has further raised the stakes by deciding on Monday, in his capacity as the speaker of the lower house, that parliament should vote on whether the government should sack a junior minister involved in a corruption inquiry. The vote, due today, could trigger a full-blown government crisis.
At the centre of this political storm is Giacomo Caliendo, a junior justice minister who was told last month that he was formally under investigation on suspicion of belonging to a secret cabal that is alleged to have acted as the prime minister’s dirty tricks unit. The claim is that it tried to influence judges involved in cases vital to Berlusconi and dug the dirt on his opponents.
Caliendo has refused to resign and he is backed by the premier.
The significance of the split with Fini shouldn’t be underestimated. Fini has stuck by Berlusconi since his entry into politics in 1994, including through an endless stream of investigations into the media magnate’s affairs. But, along with his reincarnation as a liberal after once leading the neofascist National Alliance, Fini is now a champion of clean government
In recent months he has repeatedly attacked Berlusconi’s tolerance of graft allegations that have been spreading about senior ministers. In July, he said that any member of the government who was put under investigation should resign immediately.
Berlusconi has dismissed talk of a crisis, expressing confidence that his centre-right coalition with the xenophobic Northern League – Italy’s third largest party – could still command a majority in parliament. And with this mind he has apparently embarked on a “shopping expedition” in an attempt to woo wavering independent right-wing parliamentarians with promises of government posts.
It is still possible that some of Fini’s followers will seek refuge in abstention today. That would deal a severe blow to Fini. On the other hand, if the vote goes against the prime minister he would effectively be a lame duck.
In this case Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, may be faced with the choice of dissolving parliament and calling elections or entrusting someone to form a caretaker administration.
Should it come to a snap election it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for Berlusconi.
The main opposition party, the Democrat Party – which evolved out of the right-wing of the Italian Communist Party in the early 1990s – have been caught on the hop by events.
They are still reeling from a humiliation in regional elections in March and lag in the opinion polls – the most recent putting Berlusconi at 33 per cent compared to the Democrat Party’s 27 per cent.
So not for the first time they are hoping to get back into government without an election, perhaps by forming an alliance with the same right-wing Christian democrats courted by Berlusconi, and/or with Fini. Worryingly, the main justification for avoiding elections is to “stabilise” the economy through deficit-reducing public spending cuts.
The communists, who disastrously lost all their seats in the April 2008 parliamentary elections, challenge this view.
The leader of the Party of Italian Communists Oliviero Diliberto says that “only elections can restore confidence and dignity to politics and the institutions, which have reached their lowest point with this government.” Communist Refoundation leader Paolo Ferrero concurs, calling on the opposition to unite at the elections to “finally deal with the country’s social problems.”
These social problems, as Ferrero puts it, are serious – starting with unemployment that is already at a six-year high. And things will be only get worse as a result of a draconian austerity package pushed through last week. This includes a three-year wage freeze for public-sector workers, plans to raise the retirement age of public and private workers by more than three years by 2050, a 10 per cent reduction to ministry budgets and big cuts to local authority funding, which will lead to a sharp reduction in state health and education provision.
These measures have provoked protests and strikes by a cross-section of Italian society, including judges, diplomats, civil servants, public-sector doctors and museum curators. Italy’s largest union, the CGIL, staged a general strike on June 25 with hundreds of thousands of people taking part.
Trade unionists, workers, students and others from all walks of life are increasingly challenging Berlusconi in the streets and in the virtual world, via blogs and social networking sites.
But this opposition will need to be transformed into a co-ordinated political movement if there are to be any prospects of a progressive democratic alternative in Italy. And this is a huge challenge, not least because of the prime minister’s continued stranglehold over private and state TV.
For now, Berlusconi may be down, but he is most certainly not out.