Italian government now rests in hands of Napolitano, Italy’s president


After a week of consultations with the various factions in Italy’s parliament, Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) and of the broader centrosinistra (center-left) coalition, has failed to form a government, Bersani informed Italian president Giorgio Napolitano earlier today — although his coalition controls an absolute majority of seats in the lower house of Italy’s parliament, no one controls a majority in the Senato, the upper house.Italy Flag Icon

The deadlock has resulted for two main reasons.

First, Bersani refuses to join a ‘grand coalition’ with Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) and the broader centrodestra (center-right) coalition — this week, Bersani again turned down the offer of a ‘grand coalition’ that would have made Bersani premier and Berlusconi’s top lieutenant, former justice minister Angelino Alfano, vice premier.  In exchange for the center-right’s support to prop up his premiership, however, Berlusconi has essentially demanded that the next president be a moderate or conservative acceptable to Berlusconi (don’t rule out the notion that Berlusconi conceivably meant Berlusconi himself).

Second, Beppe Grillo and his populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) refuses to join a coalition with either the centrosinistra or the centrodestra, either formally or informally.  The best that the Five Star Movement legislators have offered is to provide their support on an issue-by-issue basis, though Grillo called both the right and the left ‘whoremonger fathers’ on his blog yesterday.  This isn’t a man who wants to compromise.

An exasperated Bersani was already calling for a ‘government of miracles‘ on Tuesday (obviously not a good sign) and yesterday joked that only someone insane would want to lead Italy’s government.

Those lines have essentially been drawn since the immediate result of the election became clear.  So there was never much optimism that Bersani would succeed.

So the big question now is: what happens next?

All eyes on Napolitano

The key player at this point is Napolitano (pictured above), who will now spend the next 24 hours talking to the parties to see if they really, really won’t support a Bersani government.

Although he hasn’t unlocked a deal over the past week, Bersani has not yet renounced the mandate that Napolitano gave him last Friday to form a government, and he could convince Napolitano to appoint him prime minister anyway in order to the parliament in an attempt to try to squeak through a vote of no confidence.

But as Open Europe noted yesterday, a failure would leave Bersani in place as the default caretaker prime minister: 

As such, Napolitano may not want to run the risk – and here is why. When a new government is sworn in, it must win a vote of confidence in both houses of the Italian parliament within ten days from the oath before it can enter office. If it fails to do so, it stays on as caretaker while the Italian President decides what to do next. But Napolitano is quite keen to keep Monti as caretaker instead – so he will probably only agree to swear in a government which can realistically win the vote of confidence.

It’s very likely that Napolitano will spend the next 24 hours trying to figure out exactly what would happen if he sends Bersani to the Senato for a vote of no confidence.

If he’s convinced Bersani will fail, it seems likely that Napolitano will launch a new round of talks to determine a new route — a technocratic, or at least, caretaker ‘government sponsored by the president’ that would carry Italy through a very short-term stint, perhaps appointing a new ‘non-political’ prime minister.  Napolitano is nearing the end of his term in May — because the Italian constitution doesn’t permit the president to call new elections in the last six months of his or her term, the current parliament must, at minimum, elect a new president in order for new elections to be called.

Whither the Italian left?

Remember, of course, that the centrosinistra — chiefly the PD and its even more leftist electoral ally, the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), hold an absolute majority of the seats in the lower house.

So all roads, even a road with a temporary technocratic bridge, must go through the center-left.

As Alberto Nardelli notes, however, it’s not necessarily clear that the PD would go along with a technocratic or caretaker government:

Should the president say no to Bersani, PD will in my opinion struggle to stay united behind a common line — would they at that point support a “president’s government”?; would they push for elections?; and of course the leadership question would at that point be rather loudly voiced.

The leadership question, of course, revolves around Bersani — though he defeated the younger Florence mayor Matteo Renzi in November in the primary to become the centrosinstra‘s prime ministerial candidate, his party’s lackluster electoral outcome (less than 0.5% ahead of Berlusconi’s coalition) has called into question his capability.

In some ways, it’s incredulous that, over a month after election and without a government in place, Bersani is still leading the PD.  At this point, given Bersani’s inability to form a government, you’d think that the left would have already started to turn to Renzi, Italy’s most popular politician — and that the PD would certainly turn to Renzi in the event of snap elections.

But that’s not necessarily the case.

Bersani won the leadership in part because of his support from Italy’s muscular labor unions and the old-school leftist political machine of the dinosaurs of the Italian left (such as former prime minister and foreign minister Massimo D’Alema), and even Nichi Vendola, the relatively youthful leader of the SEL who’s also the openly gay, popular regional president of Puglia. All of those players presumably thought, with a wide double-digit lead in November, the center-left would take power even if it nominated a prosciutto sandwich for prime minister.

Besides, Renzi’s call for a clean slate and a shift to a new generation of Italian leadership on both the right and the left — uncomfortably close to Grillo’s campaign platform — left little room at the table for the old generation of the Italian left who felt entitled to the plum positions of power in what seemed like an inevitable Bersani government.

So despite Renzi’s obvious appeal, and the likelihood that he could well steal many of the supporters of the Five Star Movement, all of those ‘old left’ forces described above could keep Bersani in leadership through yet another election.  Polls in the past week have shown a fierce three-way fight in a potential snap election, and three different polls in the past 10 days have shown each of the centrosinistracentrodestra and the Five Star Movement ahead — that’s important because under current Italian election law, the winner of the national vote automatically wins a majority in the lower house of Italy’s parliament.

Monti redux

Of course, one option for Napolitano is simply to leave the current government in place.

Think of this as the ‘Belgian’ option — an Italian parliament with no real government.

Monti would remain a caretaker prime minister, presumably supported by both the PD and the PdL with a very, very limited mandate to shepherd Italy’s government on autopilot until a new president is elected and new elections can be called in the summer or autumn.

One problem is that he’s already lost much of his popularity and credibility — his centrist coalition finished far behind in fourth place in February’s elections, so for Monti to head a government in the coming months would make a mockery of the democratic verdict of the Italian electorate.

Another problem is that Monti himself seems fed up with governing the increasingly ungovernable Italy.  On Wednesday, an exasperated Monti, whose foreign minister Giulio Terzi resigned abruptly Tuesday over a scandal involving the extradition of two Italian marines to face murder charges in India, claimed that he couldn’t wait to be relieved of his duties as prime minister.

On the other hand, Monti is so clearly a lame duck at this point that he might be the perfect caretaker, especially given that no one in Italy these days seems to want to become prime minister and snap elections are becoming increasingly likely.  With such fatalism in the air, it may make sense for Napolitano to keep Monti in place by default rather than introduce yet another new public figure when the new caretaker prime minister would essentially become another Monti?

Grillo, for his part, has said that Italy doesn’t need a government to pass reforms that both the PD and the Five-Star Movement support.


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