Wednesday, April 19, 2006

the italian elections: round two

When I last posted the left-leaning coalition headed by Romano Prodi appeared to have won a narrow victory in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Italian Senate, giving it the right to form a new Government and (presumably) get on with the business of running the country. I speculated Prodi would probably get the support of most Italians in the short run and "what happens next is anyone's guess." It is increasingly unclear that he will even get that far.

Two developments, neither of them entirely in Prodi's control, have contributed to this situation. The first is the continued refusal of Berlusconi to concede an election that by any ordinary standard he has already lost. When a recount confirmed Prodi's 20,000 vote margin in the Chamber and two-seat lead in the Senate, the outgoing Reform Minister, Roberto Calderoli, mounted an additional challenge claiming that 40,000 votes in one of the northern regions were incorrectly credited to Prodi, since the relevant list was presented in only one circumscription in supposed violation of the election law. (The two coalitions are each composed of several different parties, the alignments of which varied in certain geographic locations.) Even after the Court of Cassation's decision earlier today, which rejected this and other challenges to the election results, Berlusconi's lieutenants have refused to concede, raising the possibility of appeals to regional courts or perhaps to the legislature itself when it reconvenes. One additional possibility is to attempt to "flip" one or more Senators to the conservative line, perhaps in return for regional or even personal favors, a time-honored or at least old practice known as cambiare casacca (literally, to change or turn one's coat). What Berlusconi hopes to achieve by all this--a coalition Government, selection as the new, nominally ceremonial President of Italy (which would also make it difficult to prosecute him for additional legal offenses), forcing a deadlock followed by new elections--remains unclear although the damage to the country is not.

The second development relates to economic problems. In the midst of the maneuvers above a British newspaper suggested that, if Prodi followed his likely policies, the country would be headed out of the Euro zone within the next decade--a potentially huge blow to a country that regards the Euro membership as a signal of its arrival on the top tier of European nations. A further warning came today from the IMF which warned that Italy needed harsh measures to avoid an economic crisis. In a normal country such news would have no particular effect on the election outcome, but nobody has ever accused Italy of being normal, and the combination of political and economic pressures threaten to derail the nascent Prodi Government before it even takes office. The two issues are related, because Prodi will need support from the hard-line former communists, led by Fausto Bertinotti, as well as the "softer" ex-Marxists to maintain his coalition: parties whose priorities are unlikely to be budget cutting or similar measures wanted by the international business community. Already Bertinotti's faction has been calling for his election as President of the Chamber of Deputies, a position akin to Speaker of the House in the United States, which would be about as unmoderate a move as could be imagined at least in symbolic terms. There is also talk of repealing modest liberalizations of labor and other laws passed by the Berlusconi Government, and perhaps of increases in business or estate taxes (see my previous blogs on this subject).

Through this all Prodi has been a model of coolness, having been photographed jogging in Bologna and drinking espresso at a neighborhood cafe, all the while making statements of the "the people have spoken, I am awaiting Mr. Berlusconi's telephone call" variety. The danger is that his dolce vita approach may make him look weak and create an image of inevitability among the forces that seek, one way or another, to overturn the results of the election. My instinct remains that the Berlusconi strategy is an elaborate bluff and Prodi will succeed in forming a Government: indeed, it seems at least as likely to be that the the right as the left will spaccare (break in pieces) and that a left-leaning Goverment may remain in power for a substantial period. But the incompetence of the Italian left should never be underestimated, and something approaching half of the country will never really accept its legitimacy. The only sure thing is that Italy, which more than anything needs stability, is unlikely to get it anytime very soon.


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