Is Italy headed into a post-Berlusconi ‘third republic’ era of national politics?

Silvio Berlusconi this week all but conceded that he would not run as the main center-right candidate for prime minister in Italy’s upcoming elections, due to be held before April 2013 — and he even hinted he could support a moderate coalition in favor of continuing the economic reforms of current technocratic prime minister Mario Monti (pictured above).

I’m not convinced this is the last we’ve heard from Il Cavaliere, though, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t his last word on whether he’ll run in 2013.

Berlusconi has been the central figure of Italian politics since 1994, so if he changes his mind tomorrow, or next month, or next year, he has sufficient money and control over Italian media to play a huge role in the upcoming election.  Current polls indicate, however, that most Italians are ready to turn the page on Berlusconi.

Many political scientists and Italians alike consider the period from 1945 to around 1993 Italy’s ‘first republic’ — a period where Italy’s Christian Democratic party (and various allies) essentially controlled the government continuously, through less-than-stable coalitions that often split and re-formed in various permutations of the center-right and center-left.  Despite consistently strong opposition from Italy’s Communists, the Communists never had enough strength — or were permitted to gather enough strength — to enter government.

After the Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’) scandal that implicated essentially every major politician in Italian public life in the 1990s, Italy entered its ‘second republic’ — an era that’s been dominated by Berlusconi and has featured somewhat more stability — Italian politics since the 1994 general election can be seen as a struggle between a largely rightist coalition and another largely leftist coalition (despite Italy’s reputation for pizza topping politics).  Governments have been more stable, but media freedom has in some ways regressed, in large part due to Berlusconi’s overweening control of private (and sometimes public) media in Italy.

If Berlusconi indeed remains on the sidelines in the upcoming election, however, we could see a tectonic shift in Italian politics that represents yet another era — a new ‘third republic’ — one where Italy continues to develop even more engrained democratic norms and stronger liberal freedoms.  Even if that somewhat overstates the case, 2013 is set to become as much a transformative year in Italian politics as 1994.  What’s striking is that, no more than six months before the next general election, what we know about the future of Italian politics is massively outweighed by what we don’t.

The latest poll, as of October 9 from Ipsos, currently shows Berlusconi’s center-right Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL, the People of Freedom) winning just 18.0% of the vote, to 28.5% for Italy’s main center-left party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) and the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five-Star Movement), a populist protest vehicle of popular comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo, with 17.4%. Those numbers, however, are very likely to change between now and the election.

At the risk of dumping a laundry list of minor parties at my readers, it’s important to note the other actors in Italian politics and where they stand:

  • the rump of Italy’s once-dominant Christian Democrats, led by the highly respected Pier Ferdinando Casini, the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre) wins 6.4%;
  • the centrist, anti-corruption Italia dei Valori (IdV, Italy of Values) of former Tangentopoli prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro wins 6.0%;
  • the socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom) of the popular — and openly gay — president of Puglia, Nichi Vendola, wins 5.6%;
  • the separatist Lega Nord (LN, Northern League), under the new leadership of Roberto Maroni following a corruption scandal involving former longtime leader Umberto Bossi, wins just 4.9%;
  • no other party wins more than 3% of the vote — the most notable of the smaller parties is the newly-formed free-market liberal Futuro e Libertà (FLI, Future and Freedom) of former foreign minister Gianfranco Fini, a former Berlusconi ally who once headed the neofascist National Alliance party (although he worked to move it from the fringes to the center).

With all of that in mind, consider exactly everything we don’t know about an election ostensibly just six months away:

We certainly don’t know if Berlusconi will change his mind, and insert himself (and the entire circus of court allegations, the years spent prioritizing immunity from prosecution over economic reforms in Italy’s parliament, the bunga bunga parties and child prostitution charges, etc.) back into Italian politics.

We don’t know, in the absence of Berlusconi, whether the PdL or an even larger coalition of the center-right will support another candidate for prime minister — attention has focused primarily upon Angelino Alfano, the 41-year-old Sicilian former justice minister and Berlusconi protégé who currently serves as the PdL’s secretary (and who had been assumed to be the PdL’s standard-bearer before Berlusconi hinted over the summer he would make a comeback to Italian politics).

We don’t know whether Monti will run for office to seek his own mandate to continue pursuing labor market and economic reforms in Italy.  Monti became prime minister in November 2011 after Berlusconi resigned in the face of crippling bond rates on Italian debt; both the PdL and the PD supported Monti’s appointment as a ‘technocratic’ caretaker prime minister to implement budget cuts and other reforms sufficient to allay bondholders’ fears.

Most Italians approve of Monti, despite waves of budget cuts to social programs and health care, higher taxes (including a rise in Italy’s VAT), a crackdown on tax evasion by outlawing cash transactions in excess of EUR 1,000, a raise in the retirement age to 66, and a 2012 reform liberalizing Italy’s labor market for professions as varied as law, medicine and taxi services.  Monti has repeated refused to run in his own right, although in late September he said he would be available to serve if the next election results in a hung parliament.  Monti could also be hoping to be a candidate in the next presidential election in May 2013.  Although the role is largely ceremonial, current president, the leftist Giorgio Napolitano, may want to serve another five-year term, and Berlusconi may be interested in the role (especially considering that the position would grant him further immunity from prosecutorial inquiry).

Given Monti’s popularity, Italy’s business community (which even has its own ‘union’ — Confindustria) is lobbying for a second Monti government — Monti is seen as a stabilizing force for Italian business, given his sterling international reputation.  What’s fascinating is that now, with Berlusconi hinting support for Monti, with Renzi voicing admiration for Monti, and with Casini and Fini both already supporting Monti outright, wide support on both the left and the right now exists to support a second Monti government.  It’s not too difficult to imagine the PdL-led coalition explicitly supporting a second Monti government or Renzi running outside the framework of the center-left’s agreed primary process in support of a second Monti government (or at least in support of naming Monti as finance minister).

We don’t know who will lead the PD — or the larger center-left (likely to include SEL, IdV and other smaller parties) — into the election either, pending a primary contest later in November that’s likely to be contested chiefly between the PD’s current leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the 62-year-old former president of Emilia-Romagna, a charmless social democrat (who makes former center-left prime minister Romano Prodi seem as charismatic as Bill Clinton), and the younger Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence and the former president of Florence province, who is running a scrappy, populist, and more centrist, campaign.

Vendola and Bruno Tabacci, the former president of Lombardy, are also contesting the election.  We don’t know, however, whether Italy’s left (at times horribly fractured) will unite behind that candidate.  There’s a chance Renzi will eschew the primary, dismissing it as fixed in Bersani’s favor, and run independently.

We don’t know whether Grillo’s movement is a lasting phenomenon or essentially a soft resting place for protest votes unhappy with all options — there are signs that his ‘Five Star Movement,’ like the vague protest Pirate Party in Germany, is already deflating.  It’s not too difficult to see many of Grillo’s supporters migrating to Monti as well — although the movement’s supporters are certainly more euroskeptic than either the PdL or PD, the movement seems less anti-reform to me as it is opposed to the ‘second republic’ dynamics of tawdry berlusconismo, tainted by corruption and media manipulation, on the one hand, and a moribund Italian left with roots still in the student protests of the 1960s and communism, on the other hand.

The sense I get is that a working majority of Italian politicians, Italian business leaders and Italian voters favor a second Monti government (including, I’m inclined to believe, Monti himself), which would mark quite a new era for Italian governance, and I’m think that’s the most likely end game — if not, we’ll certainly see Monti as either president or finance minister.  The most tricky question is how exactly Italy will arrive at that point.

As The Economist notes today, though, it’s both hard to conceive of either a full-throated Monti-led candidacy or of an Italian government without Monti:

A member of Mr Monti’s government admitted that, barring a hung parliament, it was impossible for the moment to see how Mr Monti could be shoehorned into politics after next spring. Even so, he added, “It is just as hard to believe he will not be around.”