History shows Italy’s likely center-left coalition will likely be short-lived and tenuous

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In the last days of Italy’s election campaign, it’s become somewhat conventional wisdom that although the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by prime ministerial candidate Pier Luigi Bersani is still on target to win control of Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), it’s now a toss-up as to whether Bersani’s coalition will win enough of the 315 seats up for election to the upper house, the Senato (Senate), to form a stable government.Italy Flag Icon

The reason is based on some odd quirks of Italian electoral and constitutional law — the key point is that while elections to both the Camera dei Deputati and the Senato are conducted according to proportional representation, seats are awarded differently between the two.  The party or coalition that wins the largest proportion of the vote nationally will be guaranteed at least 54% of the seats in the Camera dei Deputati, but seats are awarded to the Senato only on a regional basis, so that the largest vote-winner in each of Italy’s 20 regions is guaranteed a majority of the region’s seats.  Given that Lombardy, Campania and Sicily, three of Italy’s four largest regions, are essentially tossups, the centrodestra could win those three regions and deny Bersani a senatorial majority.

For Bersani to control the lower house, but not the upper house, of Italy’s parliament is certainly somewhat of a nightmare for a campaign that led by double digits when the campaign began.

Thus the hand-wringing that Bersani will be forced to assemble a governing coalition that includes not only his electoral partner, the socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), the party of the two-term regional president of Puglia, Nichi Vendola (pictured above, left, with Bersani, right), but also turn to other partners — practically, this means some sort of alliance, in the upper house at least, with the centrist coalition led by prime minister Mario Monti, Con Monti per l’Italia (with Monti for Italy).

If the senatorial balance were, however, incredibly close (say, one to three seats), Bersani might also turn to a tiny number of senators likely to be elected from the predominantly communist Rivoluzione Civile (Civil Revolution) coalition, though it remains to be seen whether they would back Bersani — Vendola would certainly find more common cause with them than with Monti and his allies.

Monti and Vendola have mutually ruled out serving together in the same coalition — although Bersani has already committed to many of the reforms that Monti began, Vendola has been much more critical of the Monti government’s efforts, whcih have included tax increases and tax and labor reform.

It doesn’t help that Vendola, who is openly gay and supports same-sex marriage in Italy, is at contretemps with the social conservative bent of Monti’s coalition.  Although Monti has expressly opposed same-sex marriage and adopt by same-sex couples, the coalition includes the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), comprised of former Christian Democrats and led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, who has very close ties to the Vatican, and Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom), a party formed by Gianfranco Fini, a moderate who once served as Silvio Berlusconi’s foreign minister.

There are no easy answers for Bersani, and on Monday, Wolfgang Münchau at The Financial Times predicted a re-run of the prior leftist government of former prime minister Romano Prodi, who came to office in April 2006 as the moderate head of a wide-ranging leftist coalition that included relatively moderate former Christian Democrats, more progressive social democrats and die-hard communists (including Fausto Bertinotti, who became the president of the Camera dei Deputati from 2006 to 2008).

That government fell in early 2008 over a vote of no confidence in the Senato, when senator-for-life and former Christian Democratic prime minister Giulio Andreotti scuttled an attempt to pass equal civil rights for same-sex partners.

So Münchau is right to predict that the chances of a full five-year — or even one-year — government are fairly slim in the event of an unwieldy coalition that would include not only Vendola and Bersani (difficult enough), but also Casini, Fini and Monti.

That will certainly cause even more hand-wringing and not just in Milan and Rome, but in Berlin, Brussels, London and Washington, too — without a stable government to assure investors, a new Italian financial crisis could once again endanger the future viability of the single currency.  That’s assuming that Italy, and the other troubled economies of the eurozone, finds a path out from the wilderness of increasing unemployment and low or declining GDP growth.  The reality is that the next government, whether led by Monti, Berlusconi or Bersani, will face a lot of incredibly difficult and painful choices for Italy’s future.

But the troubling precedents go beyond the most recent Prodi government — the Italian left has been long fragmented and disorganized since the end of the ‘first republic’ and the breakup of the former Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party), which goes a long way in explaining how dysfunctional leftist governments have been in Italy. 

After 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Italian Communist Party split into the socially progressive Democratici di Sinistra (DS, Democrats of the Left), a less anachronistic leftist party, and into the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC, Communist Refoundation Party), still communist but with a less Marxist platform.

The Democrats of the Left teamed up with other moderates, including former Christian Democrats, under the wide-ranging L’Ulivo (Olive Tree) coalition, and that coalition emerged as the narrow winner of the 1996 Italian general election and, like in 2006, brought to power a broad coalition headed by Prodi.

In 1996, Prodi needed the support of the PRC, which had won 8.6% of the party list vote and 35 seats, thereby nudging Prodi’s 285-seat plurality into a majority.

Prodi raced to a strong start by putting Italy’s economic house in order for the purpose of joining the euro, the European single currency.  But Bertinotti brought the government down on a vote of no confidence in October 1998 when he left Prodi’s coalition.

The leader of the Democrats of the Left, Massimo D’Alema, became prime minister and the first formerly communist leader of a NATO country.  He spent much of his time supporting the NATO intervention in Kosovo and passing a law trying to level the field for media access in light of Berlusconi’s massive media empire.  After a devastating defeat in regional elections in 2000, D’Alema too stepped down.

His successor, Giuliano Amato, formerly the minister of the treasury and budget, and former Italian socialist confidante to prime minister Bettino Craxi, presided over a technocratic government.

Although the center-left government limped to the end of its five-year mandate, it became a parody of the kinds of governments for which Italy had long been known — four governments under three prime ministers.  Berlusconi easily won the following 2001 elections and held onto power through 2006, ushering in a new era of center-right stability (though that government hardly had much more to show in the way of policy accomplishments).

In any event, even if the centrosinistra coalition currently headed by Bersani wins this weekend’s election and manages to hold onto power until 2018, it wouldn’t necessarily be deemed a success, as the governments from 1996 to 2001 show.

In 2006, Prodi returned to office after five years away as president of the European Commission, yet just barely — despite a large lead at the beginning of the campaign, his coalition finished with 48.80% to Berlusconi’s 48.69% in the 2006 election.

Prodi’s new coalition was just as unwieldy as the 1996 coalition that comprised nine parties that won seats in the Camera dei Deputati and included, once again, Bertinotti’s Communists and D’Alema’s Democrats of the Left, as well as the newer center-left Margherita (Daisy) party of former Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli, who unsuccessfully led the L’Unione coalition in 2001 against Berlusconi.

Only in 2007 did the center-left truly unite under the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Even then, it wasn’t enough to unite the Italian left, with Bertinotti remaining outside the newly formed PD.  When the Prodi government fell in 2008, the popular center-left mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, was selected to lead the PD, but the 2008 elections, once again, returned Berlusconi to power, rendered Prodi’s second chance a missed opportunity and essentially ended Veltroni’s national ambitions.

So Bersani’s travails are hardly idiosyncratic, and if past is prologue, we should expect a tempestuous center-left government.

The PRC lost all of its seats in 2008, and now is hoping to make a comeback through the Rivoluzione Civile coalition, a collection of political misfits that includes other communists, the Italian greens and the anti-corruption Italia dei Valori (IdV, Italy of Values) led by former prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro.

But notwithstanding the PRC’s marginalization, Bersani will certainly have his hands full trying to balance a coalition that spans from Monti, whose Christian Democratic base brought down the last Prodi government in 2008 and from Vendola, whose SEL is reminiscent of the PRC in its heyday, when it brought down the first Prodi government in 1998.

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