By Tom Gill
Is the game really up for Silvio Berlusconi? Italian MPs will decide tomorrow.
A confidence vote is due in the Italian parliament, following a humiliating and wholly unexpected defeat on Tuesday on an essentially technical vote.
Significantly Guilio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s Finance minister, and Umberto Bossi, the leader of junior coalition partner, the xenophobic Northern League were both absent from the Chamber of Deputies at the time of the vote. The Government was one short of a majority. If the billionaire premier loses this time, he will have to resign.
The Italian Government has been in trouble for some time – most recently with the emergence of a new rebel group that has coalesced inside his People of Freedom (PdL) party around Claudio Scajola, a former minister who resigned last year in an alleged corruption scandal.
It is not clear whether the humiliation in parliament earlier this week was an “accident” as Berlusconi claims, or a conspiracy. Tremonti was apparently absent due to a funeral. But he has been at loggerheads with the PM, whose doesn’t want to take the political responsibility for his finance minister’s insistence on drastic spending cuts and tax increases.
Bossi, meanwhile, was reportedly talking to journalists when the vote was taken. Once the undisputed leader of his party, he is facing open revolt in his party, partly because of his autocratic style and partly because of a belief that his close alliance with Berlusconi is taking them nowhere fast.
Bossi has repeatedly hinted to the possibility of early elections, saying that he thought it “objectively complicated” for the ruling coalition to remain in office until 2013, when the next general elections are scheduled.
The context of the political drama is that “too-big-to-fail” Italy has moved centre stage in Europe’s banking-sovereign debt crisis. This has exposed more than ever the premier’s naked use of the Italian state to serve himself (and save himself from jailors) at the cost everybody and everything else.
A few days ago international rating agencies downgraded the credit worthiness of Italy’s foreign debt, its banks and a number of local authorities.
At root of all of this is the peninsula’s zombie-like economy. The country is overall barely richer (although definitely more unequal) than it was a decade ago, thanks in large part to public spending cuts and an uncompetitive exchange rate locked in by European monetary union.
The fact that tax evasion is positively encouraged hasn’t helped the public finances either. Berlusconi’s already done two of them since first entering politics in 1994 and now a tax amnesty is on the agenda again, a move that provoked the European Commission to issue an unusually stern warning that this “harms the credibility of Italy’s deficit and debt reduction strategy.”
Measures such as closing tax loopholes, recovering money salted away in tax havens and a clampdown on white collar crime could recover hundreds of billions of euros, enough money to plug the largest budget hole and invest in jobs and public services. But they don’t get a look in.
Berlusconi’s misery has been a boon for the opposition. The latest polls show the widest gap ever between the Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition and the leading opposition party, the Democrats, and their more radical allies, Antonio di Pietro’s Italy of Values party and Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Freedom party.
There is now a great opportunity for Italy to turn a new chapter and rebuild the country after Berlusconi and his corrosive effect on politics and public life.
However, the Democrats just want Berlusconi’s head. They are running scared of elections and are instead seeking alliances with almost anybody (including the likes of Scajola) willing to establish a “transition government” to introduce neo-liberal reforms demanded by the European Central Bank and Italian big business.
From a hire-and-fire labour market to the hollowing out and privatisation of public services and the smashing of the protections enjoyed by the liberal professions, the proposed reforms will attack working and middle classes alike.
However, there is a growing rebellion in workplaces and in the streets.
This week Italy’s ‘indignados’ targeted the Bank of Italy, and are promising the permanent protests styled on those that have already swept Spain, North Africa and now the US. Trade unions will be joining them on Saturday for mass demonstrations against austerity.
The Italian political and business class was almost swept away in the Bribesville scandals a decade and a half ago. Berlusconi saved them from it. Fuelled by a climate of complete impunity, today the stench of corruption, is just as strong, financial crime is rife and the thoroughly unhealthy links between politicians and the corporate world more ingrained than ever.
There is a genuine popular rage brewing that will only be further inflamed if the media mogul is pushed aside just so the elite can engineer another stitch up of the Italian people.
So tomorrow’s vote in the Italian parliament is really important. But it is even more important what happens next.