Pier Luigi Bersani has five days to build an Italian government

napolitano bersani

When elections were called in Italy late in 2012, the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition united around Pier Luigi Bersani thought, on the basis of polls that showed Bersani (pictured above, left) with a wide lead, that it was nearly assured that they would easily win a five-year mandate to govern Italy.Italy Flag Icon

Instead, they may have won just a five-day mandate to show that they can win a confidence vote in both houses of Italy’s parliament.

The leader of Italy’s Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Pier Luigi Bersani, will have the first formal opportunity to form a government after three days of talks between Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano (pictured above, right) and the various party leaders, including former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, who ran on a platform of extending his reform program; former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose centrodestra (center-right) coalition nearly outpaced Bersani’s coalition; and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement), who himself did not run for a seat in the Italian parliament.

Napolitano, in a rare speech today, pleaded for a solution, arguing that institutional stability is just as important as financial stability.

Yesterday, Bersani called for a grand ‘governo di cambiamento,’ a government of change that would draw from all of the parties in the parliament.  It’s not immediately clear, however, what exactly Bersani would do with such a government or that the announcement would significantly shake up the coalition talks.

Bersani will have until March 26 — Tuesday — to show that he can pull together a patchwork vote of confidence.  Otherwise, Napolitano will conduct further talks with the party leaders in search of a Plan B.

In the February 2013 elections, the centrosinistra won an absolute majority of the seats in the 630-member Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies) because under Italian election law, the winner, by whatever margin, of the nationwide vote automatically wins 54% of the seats.  So Bersani commands a majority in the lower house, though he does so after winning a surprisingly narrow victory (29.54%) over Berlusconi’s centrodestra (29.18%) and Grillo’s Five Star Movement (25.55%):

Italy Camera 2013

The current crisis of governance in Italy springs from the fact that there’s no similar ‘national winner’s bonus’ for the upper house, the Senato, where the centrodestra actually won more seats than the centrosinistra.  That’s because there’s a regional ‘bonus’ — the party with the most support in each of Italy’s 20 regions is guaranteed an absolute majority of the senatorial seats in that region.  As Berlusconi’s coalition won so many of the contests in Italy’s largest regions (i.e., Piedmont, Sicily, Campania), however narrowly, he won the largest bloc in the Senato:

Italy Senate 2013

In the immediate aftermath of the election results, I argued that Italy faced essentially four paths for a government:

  1. A Bersani-Monti minority government. 
  2. A Berlusconi-Bersani ‘grand coalition.’
  3. A formal or informal Bersani-Grillo alliance.
  4. Snap elections (after the election of a new president).

Since then, we haven’t seen an incredible amount of action, because the parliament only sat for the first time last weekend, when it elected speakers to both the lower and upper houses.  None of those are likely to happen in any meaningful sense, but there are small variations on each that could keep Italy’s government moving forward, if only for a short-term basis to implement a narrow set of reforms (e.g., a new election law) and to elect a new president — Napolitano’s term ends in May.

So with the clock ticking for Bersani’s chances of becoming prime minister and leading a government, where do each of those options still stand?

A new technocratic government based on the Bersani-Monti bloc.

Arithmetic hasn’t magically changed since February — even a bloc of both Monti’s centrist and Bersani’s centrosinistra senators would not command a majority in the Senato and so would nonetheless need votes from Berlusconi or Grillo to pass any legislation.

Given that any such coalition would prioritize extending the budget cuts, tax increases and tax and economic reforms of the Monti government, it seems unlikely that Grillo or Berlusconi, both of whom ran on broad anti-austerity campaigns, would provide any support.

Given the unpopularity of Monti (his centrist coalition finished far behind in fourth place), it is not certain that the now-weakened Bersani could even command all of his centrosinistra allies to support such a government, especially the more leftist members of the PD and the members of the PD’s largest ally, the socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), the more stridently leftist party of Puglia regional president Nicchi Vendola.  Moreover, Bersani himself will certainly be wary about yoking his coalition to such an unpopular set of reforms with elections likely to come sooner rather than later.

Since the February election, any number of additional iterations of this concept have surfaced, including the appointment of a ‘new’ technocratic prime minister, such as the governor of the Banca d’Italia, Ignazio Visco, or the former head of Italy’s constitutional court, Gustavo Zagrebelsky, or Roman legal scholar Stefano Rodotà.

That might help in the short-term, given Monti’s growing unpopularity, but any technocratic figure tasked with pursuing essentially the same policies would face the same problems as described above.

But if Bersani fails to form a government in the next five days, the most likely next step is that Napolitano will turn next to a well-respected figure to form a short-term technocratic government, such as Visco, Zagrebelsky or Rodotà, instead of asking either Grillo or Berlusconi to lead a government — after all, in the lower house, all roads run through Bersani.

That begs the question of whether Bersani would actually support a technocratic government led by a new figure — such a capitulation would almost certainly end his career as the leader of the center-left.

An involuntary Berlusconi-Bersani ‘grand coalition.’

Berlusconi and his party, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), have long been in favor of a broad left-right coalition of the traditional political forces in Italy, thereby excluding the Five Star Movement to irrelevance.

Bersani and the left have consistently refused Berlusconi’s entreaties, however, and this remains by the least likely solution — by far.

Though he surprised a lot of people by nearly winning the three-way Italian race, Berlusconi remains as politically radioactive as ever — he was convicted of illegally printing conversations obtained by wiretapping earlier this month.

Conceivably, Berlusconi could direct his members to prop up Bersani’s government in the upper house’s vote of confidence, thereby pushing Bersani even closer to a sort of involuntary grand coalition.

Berlusconi and the centrodestra are anxious to make a deal to support Bersani’s government in exchange for Bersani’s support to elect a center-right president in the presidential election that will begin in April among both houses of Italy’s parliament and a special electoral college comprised of representatives from Italy’s regions.  Bersani, however, has ruled out such nakedly political horse-trading.

I’ve often surmised that Berlusconi covets the presidency, not only for its immunity from prosecution, but also as a way to shape his legacy as Italy’s longtime political leader — despite all the tawdriness of Berlusconi’s government, his election as president would give him a way to end his career on a dignified note, in contrast to his one-time mentor, the late former Socialist Party prime minister Bettino Craxi, who died in exile in Tunisia.

Though a deal would have the benefits of kicking Berlusconi up to a realm outside of day-to-day political combat, and could well secure medium-term stability of Bersani’s government (neither the center-left or center-right would want to subject that kind of deal to the judgment of the Italian electorate), it would only reinforce the cynicism that many Italians feel about traditional political leaders, which could embolden the Five Star Movement or other groups at the long-term expense of the Italian left.

An ad hoc, issue-by-issue alliance with the Five Star Movement.

Grillo has essentially ruled out even the most structured of alliances with Bersani, though he and Five Star Movement leaders, such as Vito Crimi, the 40-year old Lombardian who is the M5S leader in the Senato, have said they will vote for legislation proposed by any Bersani-led government that aligns with their own platform.  (By the way, keep your eye on Crimi, because as the Five Star Movement leader in the Senato, he conceivably has more power now to shape events than even Grillo, who did not stand for parliament because of a 1981 manslaughter conviction)

A case in point was last weekend’s election of the speakers in both houses of Italy’s parliament.

Bersani was forced to give up on his first choice for speaker, Anna Finocchiaro, the longtime PD leader in Italy’s Senato, instead supporting a political neophyte, Pietro Grasso.  Grasso is a former anti-mafia prosecutor and served as head of the national anti-mafia directorate from 2005 until 2012 — during his time in office, he assisted in the capture of Corleone mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano.  His anti-mafia and anti-corruption credentials and his role as a newcomer to Italian politics — in contrast to Finocchiaro, who was first elected to Italy’s parliament in 1987 — made him a clearly more palatable choice for Five Star Movement legislators.

Accordingly, both members of Monti’s centrist coalition and the Five Star Movement helped push Grasso to victory as speaker, by allowing him to win with just the votes of the centrosinistra senators and a handful of additional votes, though only after the fourth ballot (when, under Italian procedure, the threshold for victory lowers from a two-thirds majority to just a majority of votes cast).

Meanwhile, in the lower house, the centrosinsitra elected Laura Boldrini as speaker.  Another newcomer to Italian politics, she won election from Sicily as a member of Vendola’s leftist SEL.  Boldrini, a former journalist, has spent much of her career working in international affairs, first in the 1990s at the World Food Programme, and from 1998 to 2012 as the spokesperson of the High Commissioner for Refugees.


Boldini and Grasso (pictured below) have already taken small steps to indicate they will help pursue a reform agenda — both, for example, have pledged to halve their salaries as speaker.  Conceivably, Boldini (or especially Grasso) could become a caretaker prime minister if Bersani cannot command a vote of confidence in the Senato in the next five days, though Grillo has for now dismissed the idea of a government led by Grasso instead of Bersani.

Snap elections after the presidential election.

New elections seem likely in any case, though the new parliament must first election a new president — remember, Napolitano cannot call new elections in the final six months of his term as president.  For now, Napolitano, at age 87, has ruled out running for reelection to a seven-year term.

Outside of a broad deal between Berlusconi and Bersani, it seems likely that Bersani will succeed in pushing through a moderately leftist candidate for president with sufficiently respectable credentials that it could win support from the Five Star Movement.  That means the new president could be someone like Zagrebelsky or perhaps Emma Bonino, the former European Commissioner for health and consumer protection, Radical Party leader and a champion of women’s rights and human rights, and less likely someone like former prime minister Giuliano Amato, a fixture of Italy’s moderate left for the past four decades.

If, after a new president is elected, Italy cannot achieve a stable government, the new president will be forced to call new elections.

A March 15 SWG poll showed the Five Star Movement would win with 30% of the vote; this week, a SWG poll showed that Berlusconi’s coalition would win an election today with 29.7% of the vote, to 26.9% for the Five Star Movement and 25.5% for Bersani’s centrosinistra.  So although there’s quite a bit of volatility, Italy’s voters remain essentially split among the three parties and it remains far from certain who would actually win those elections.

Would Italians back away from the potentially catastrophic market reaction to electing the Five Star Movement to government?  Would Italians have second thoughts about supporting Berlusconi yet again? Would Italians pull away further from the centrosinistra, given its lackluster result in February?  Would Monti even run? Would the centrosinistra choose a new leader and potential prime minister, such as the young, popular Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi in a bid to undermine Grillo?  Would voter intentions shift dramatically if Italian bond yields skyrocketed between now and any future election?

There are simply too many variables to predict what could happen.

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