Friday, February 23, 2007

italian government falls and (maybe) arises again

The Italian Government, a left-center coalition headed by second-time Premier Romano Prodi, fell last week after the Government lost an effective vote of confidence in the Italian Senate, in which it held an extremely narrow majority. The vote was called by Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, apparently without much consultation with Prodi, in order to clarify support for his foreign policy, including the continued presence of Italian troops in Aghanistan and the expansion of an American military base near Vicenza in northern Italy. A number of senatori a vita (life senators), together with two far-left deputies unhappy with D'Alema's refusal to distance Italy further from the United States, either abstained or voted in the negative on the decisive ballot, giving the right a narrow victory and leading Prodi to resign a few hours later.

The fall of an Italian Government is never really a surprise, but the timing and manner of this particular debacle left even veteran italophiles somewhat puzzled. The matter on which the Government fell, foreign policy, has generally attracted less attention than domestic issues: polls show that some 60 percent of the country supports D'Alema's overall approach. Defections from the far left have been a constant threat, but somehow the Government--whether from enthusiasm for its policies or fear of a return of the Italian right--has usually muddled through. Not this time.

At week's end, Prodi was attempting to cobble together a new Government with the help of moderate parties, while former premier Silvio Berlusconi said that he was "frightened" by the continuation of a Prodi Government in any form, adding for good measure that Rome (now under left-wing control) was "a capital of drugs and shantytowns." Since no one, probably including Berlusconi, really wants new elections, the betting here is that Prodi will stumble through until the next crisis. But there has never really been a stable left-wing government in Italian history, and the recent events mark the second time in less than 10 years that former communists have, one way or another, caused a center-left coalition to collapse from within. The biggest loser is probably the country, which notwithstanding a $2 trillion economy seems unable to articulate a stable, competitive political culture. Plus ca change . . .


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