How the Italian election, Bersani’s to lose, became a Berlusconi-Monti dogfight


There are now less than two weeks to go before Italians select a new prime minister, and if you watched the dueling soundbites, you would be forgiven if you thought the two main contenders were current prime minister Mario Monti and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.Italy Flag Icon

But while Berlusconi and Monti have taken up much of the headlines, the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), still seems more likely than not to win the Feb. 24 and 25 parliamentary elections, guaranteeing a majority in the 630-member Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), the lower house of the  Parlamento Italiano (Italian Parliament) and a plurality of the seats among the 315 elected members of its upper house, the Senato (Senate).

As of last Friday — the last day under Italian law that new polls can be published in advance of the election — the broad centrosinistra coalition still held a single-digit, but steady, lead over the centrodestra coalition dominated by Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom).  After consolidating the center-right, especially by gaining the support of the autonomist Lega Nord (Northern League), Berlusconi’s coalition has pulled to within a modest deficit with the centrosinistra, despite the fact that polls show his PdL with less than 20% support and the PD with consistently over 30%.

Meanwhile, the centrosinistra coalition has lost some support to both the centrist coalition headed by Monti, the outgoing technocratic prime minister, and the anti-austerity protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) of comedian Beppe Grillo was also gaining steam going into the final two weeks of the campaign.

So if the centrosinistra lead has been whittled down a bit, the race to govern Italy still seems like Bersani’s fight to lose.  It’s a much more fragile lead than it was when the campaign started, but in Italy, you’d expect the race to tighten, especially with Berlusconi’s full-court press — even in his weakened political state, Berlusconi remains one of Italy’s richest men, and he commands a significant amount of media control.

Since the start of the campaign, even with Bersani and his center-left allies campaigning hard, sparks have flown strongest not between Bersani and Berlusconi, but between Berlusconi and Monti.

Monti, in shifting from an above-the-fray technocrat to an off-with-the-gloves politician, has attacked Berlusconi as the ‘pied piper’ of Italian politics, mocked his ‘family values’ by referencing Berlusconi’s tawdry sex scandal-ridden past, and said that a victory for Berlusconi would be a ‘disaster’ for Italy.  Earlier this week, he attacked Berlusconi’s promise to abolish — and refund to taxpayers — an unpopular housing tax as a ruse to buy votes with money the Italian government doesn’t have.

Berlusconi, for his part, launched his campaign in December 2012 by accusing Monti of dragging Italy back into recession with ‘German-centric’ policies and, despite an odd offer before Christmas to step down in favor of a united Monti-led coalition, has hammered away at Monti’s efforts to appease European interests from Brussels to Berlin, efforts that Berlusconi claims have come at the cost of improving everyday life in Italy.

In the midst of the back-and-forth between il cavaliere and il professore, where exactly does that leave the centrosinistra? And how did Berlusconi and Monti, whose parties have arguably less support than either of Bersani’s PD or Grillo’s Five Star Movement, come to dominate the campaign?

Monti took over as prime minister following Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011, with soaring bond rates and doubt over Berlusconi from European leaders and investors sending Italy to the bring of a sovereign debt crisis.  His government, at the time, came to power with the support of both Berlusconi’s PdL and Bersani’s PD, giving Monti carte blanche to enact the kinds of reforms that Berlusconi himself had been promising to enact since his entry into Italian politics in 1994 — tax reform, labor market reform and enough budget cuts to allay the rest of Europe that Italy’s government would not allow public debt (most of it accrued long ago in the 1980s) to spiral out of control.

In many ways, Monti’s stint as prime minister has taken Berlusconi off the hook from governing — Berlusconi won elections in 1994, 2001 and 2008 pledging reform, but got bogged down in pursuing less savory matters like fixing immunity for himself and distractions over scandals (most recently, over whether Berlusconi engaged in sexual conduct with underage prostitutes from North Africa — recall the ‘bunga, bunga‘ headlines from 2011).

So when Berlusconi returned to front-line politics late last year, it wasn’t surprising to see him do so by essentially pulling his support from Monti’s government and by railing against austerity and against Europe, setting the stage for what amounts to a civil war between the ‘reformist’ right and the Berlusconi right.

A reluctant Monti leads a hastily formed coalition of centrists and center-right groups who support his reforms and who oppose Berlusconi’s antics under the Con Monti per l’Italia (with Monti for Italy) banner, and his supporters include Pier Ferdinando Casini, the leader of the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), a Christian democratic party with centrist economic views and socially conservative social views with longstanding ties to the Vatican, and Berlusconi’s increasingly centrist former foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini, the leader of his own Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom).

When the Lega Nord — which, unlike Berlusconi’s PdL, never supported the Monti government — agreed to join Berlusconi’s coalition (on condition that if the coalition wins, Berlusconi will not serve as prime minister), it became clear that the broad centrodestra would command more support than Monti’s coalition.

Given than Berlusconi, a deeply unpopular yet skilled showman whose antics have defined Italian politics for two decades, would be leading the center-right in the election, it was always certain that he would take full advantage of the media spotlight.  Given, also, that Monti is a soft-spoken economist whose chief experience lies in his stint overseeing competition law on the European Commission, it was also a foregone conclusion that the pro-reform center would not have a champion in the same league, in terms of political raw talent, as Berlusconi — or even Bersani, who’s not even the most exciting politician in his own party.  It doesn’t help that Monti, in his efforts to further the cause of reform, has an additional incentive to remain at least somewhat above the fray of everyday politics; Berlusconi has absolutely no problem with bare-knuckled political brawling.

In addition, by ceding the premiership of Italy to Monti to undertake the difficult economic reforms that he’d been promising for years, Berlusconi is now free to campaign in the 2013 elections denouncing austerity that seems to have helped plunge Italy back into recession in 2012 after only a minor pro-growth episode following a contraction in 2008 and 2009.

In the background (or, perhaps, above the fray), the centrosinistra should welcome the fight between Berlusconi and Monti — the more petty the bickering between the two, the easier it becomes for Bersani to rise into the role of a statesman.

It’s not so simple, though, and Bersani has reasons to both welcome and fear a result that maximizes support for Monti’s coalition.

Given the electoral rules that guarantee a majority of the seats in the Camera dei Deputati to the coalition that wins the highest number of votes nationally, you’d expect that the center-left would be delighted to see right-wing voters split between Monti and Berlusconi.

Furthermore, given the tightening of the race in recent days, the centrosinistra may ultimately lack enough votes to control Italy’s Senato — the electoral law provides that the election’s winner of each of Italy’s 20 regions wins a majority of that region’s seats, but only on a regional basis (unlike the nationwide basis for the lower house).  In that case, Bersani, who has largely indicated support for extending Monti’s reform drive, may well need to ally with Monti in order to form a government.

On the other hand, Monti’s decision to run has created a tangible centrist alternative to Berlusconi, and that’s likely drawn support away from the centrosinistra, which is also trying to keep its most leftist voters from defecting to Grillo or other, more radical anti-austerity groups.  At some point, Monti’s success comes at the expense of Bersani’s success.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s elevation to the center of the election campaign has undoubtedly boosted his voter support, narrowing a once-impenetrable centrosinistra lead to single-digits — right now, the centrodestra‘s support seems insufficient to win the election, but if the Five Star Movement, the Monti coalition and other groups pull enough votes from the left, and if Berlusconi pulls enough votes from right-wing voters, there’s at least a possibility that we could wake up February 26 to a Berlusconi win.

That would be an absolute disaster for Monti and Bersani, and given the world’s lack of confidence in Berlusconi, perhaps also for Italy.

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