Letta survives no-confidence vote easily as Berlusconi suffers humiliating defeat

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For one day, at least, gerontocratic Italy was no country for old men.Italy Flag Icon

In his address to the Italian Senato (Senate), center-left prime minister Enrico Letta, just five months into the job, quoted former postwar Italian president Luigi Einaudi to announce as much to his allies and enemies alike in a speech that preceded a confidence vote for his beleaguered government:

Nella vita delle istituzione l’errore di non saper cogliere l’attimo puo’ essere irreparabile. [In the lives of nations, the mistake of not knowing how to seize the fleeting moment is irreparable.]

Italian politics, if nothing else, provides many fleeting moments, and Letta (at age 47, one of Italy’s youngest prime ministers) today seized a huge victory, as did Angelino Alfano, the 42-year-old center-right deputy prime minister and minister of the interior.  Both seized their moments at the expense of 77-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who remains the central figure in Italian politics 19 years after his first election as prime minister — though perhaps not for much longer.

Letta easily won a vote of confidence in his government after a showdown that ultimately caused more damage to Italy’s centrodestra (center-right) than to Letta’s government that began four days ago when Berlusconi tried to pull his party’s five ministers out of the current coalition government and thereby end Letta’s short-lived government in favor of early elections.

Alfano, Berlusconi’s top deputy, defied Berlusconi by indicating he would vote to support Letta’s government.  With Alfano, other current ministers and at least 25 rebels from Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) prepared to do the same, Berlusconi himself relented at the last minute and instructed all of the PdL’s senators to support Letta, who thereupon easily won a vote of no confidence by a margin of 270 to 135.  Letta leads an unwieldy grand coalition of center-right PdL senators, senators from Letta’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) and a handful of centrist, Christian Democratic and other pro-reform senators who support former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti.

But neither Letta’s victory nor Berlusconi’s retreat will come close to solving the problems Italy, its government, its economy, its political system and its political parties face in the months ahead:

  • Italy’s economy is in shambles.  To the extent that Italian politicians cannot muster the will to accomplish anything in good times (though Italy’s GDP growth was sluggish at best in the mid-2000s), it’s even more difficult at a time when Italy faces the worst economy of its postwar history.  Italy’s economy is set to contract by 1.8% this year, after a 2.4% contraction last year and near-zero growth in 2011.  Its unemployment rate ticked up to 12.2% in August, which is only marginally higher than the eurozone average of 12.0%, though it’s a huge rise compared to a 10.7% rate in August 2012.  Though Italy’s governments have not been incredibly profligate over the past decade, the country accumulated a huge public debt in the 1980s and 1990s, and its current debt-to-GDP ratio is a staggering 127% and rising, thanks to economic woes.
  • Reforming Italy’s finances has not been an easy task.  Though Monti became prime minister in November 2011 with the blessing of both the PdL and the PD and with a mandate for reform in the wake of a debt market crisis that pushed Berlusconi out of power, he succeeded in accomplishing only some reforms — a crackdown on tax evasion, cuts of around €20 billion to Italy’s budget, a hike in the minimum retirement age from 65 to 66 for men and from 60 to 62 for women, and minor (if contentious) labor market reforms that make it easier to fire workers.  But that’s more like an appetizer than the main course.  Berlusconi caused the latest crisis, ostensibly, over the rise in Italy’s VAT rate from 21% to 22%, which is necessary to keep its current budget deficit within 3% of GDP, pursuant to European law.  But Letta’s government faces an even steeper task in enacting further labor market reform, legal reform, governance reform and other measures to make Italy more competitive and business-friendly.
  • Reforming Italy’s election law has not been an easy task.  In a nutshell, Italy has a schizophrenic election law that even its one-time legislative sponsor has described as ‘a pig’s dinner’ — in the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), the largest national party receives a ‘winner’s bonus’ that allows it a minimum of 340 seats in the 630-member chamber, but in the 315-member Senato (Senate), seats are awarded on state-by-state proportional representation, which can result in a hung parliament.  It means that Letta’s Democrats must form the government because of their lower-house majority, but that they have to find coalition partners in the upper house.  The problem is that, though everyone agrees the 2005 law is horrible, no one can agree on how to fix it.
  • Berlusconi could lash out in unpredictable ways as his fall from power accelerates.  As soon as Friday, the Italian senate will begin the process of expunging Berlusconi from the Italian parliament in light of a temporary ban on public office stemming from Berlusconi’s tax fraud conviction earlier this year.  Even beyond the humiliation of his u-turn today, Berlusconi faced a dressing-down from Letta in the Italian senate, who argued that the interests of one person and the Italian nation couldn’t overlap and that in a democratic state, sentences must be respected and enforced.  Berlusconi will shortly have to choose whether he wants to serve his one-year sentence in prison or, more likely, in the form of house arrest or community service.  Meanwhile, he faces appeals for another conviction for paying for sex with an underage girl and abuse of power in trying to cover it up, and he faces several other criminal charges to boot.  His exit from the Italian parliament today was met with jeers and boos from the public, reminiscent of the jeers that met his one-time Socialist Party mentor, Bettino Craxi, who rose to power in the 1980s but fled Rome in 1994 to exile in Tunisia.
  • Italy’s centrodestra could be splitting into two camps.  Alfano, prior to this weekend, had always been immaculately loyal to Berlusconi.  But he made clear, in gentle but increasingly firm statements, that he would not support Berlusconi’s attempts to bring down the Letta government.  Alfano joins around 25 ‘rebels’ who were allegedly prepared to split from Berlusconi’s main party (which he’s renamed from the PdL to Forza Italia this year) to form their own parliamentary group, which was to be called Nuova Italia (New Italy).  Even though Berlusconi backtracked, the week’s events leave the Italian centrodestra divided between conciliatory doves and more radical hawks.  In the short run, that’s probably good for Letta, because he knows he can count on the ‘Alfano wing’ to support his government, notwithstanding Berlusconi’s whims.  But the example of Gianfranco Fini looms ominously for Alfano — Fini once served as Berlusconi’s deputy and Italy’s foreign minister, broke with Berlusconi but failed so spectacularly in February’s parliamentary elections that he lost a seat in Italy’s parliament that he’d held for three decades.  Alfano, however, is also seen as a somewhat weak leader of the Italian right — Berlusconi led the campaign last February when Alfano’s lackluster efforts seemed to have stalled the PdL.  Despite Alfano’s victory today, any number of more hawkish challengers could emerge as an alternative to Alfano, including Berlusconi’s 47-year-old daughter Marina or former economics undersecretary Nicola Cosentino.
  • Italy’s centrosinistra (center-left) has spent much of 2013 divided.  Despite the pyrotechnics on the Italian right, it’s the Italian left that’s been mostly fractured since February’s elections and even before — the Democratic Party formed only in 2007 and includes a wide rainbow of social democrats, Christian democrats and former Communists.  The Democratic Party’s former leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who won the party’s November 2012 primary with the support of Italy’s traditional labor unions and longtime leftist figures like former prime minister Massimo d’Alema, bungled a once-insurmountable lead in Italy’s parliamentary elections by running an uninspiring campaign.  Bersani subsequently stepped down as leader after his failure –twice — to corral enough supporters on the left to elect his candidate for Italy’s most ceremonial presidency (including former leftist prime minister Romano Prodi).  Electors ultimately reelected 88-year-old Giorgio Napolitano instead, and Napolitano entrusted Letta with a mandate to form the current government.  But the Democratic Party’s electoral ally, the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), a socialist party led by Puglia regional president Nichi Vendola, joined the opposition when Letta formed a grand coalition with the centrodestra.
  • Italy’s centrosinistra faces more bruising battles between now and December.  Bersani’s rival in the 2012 primaries, Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence, remains the most popular political figure in Italy, having called for a rupture with the ossified political leadership of both the left and the right.  This will come to a climax in the campaign for the party’s leadership election on December 8, when Renzi will face off against Gianni Cuperlo, a D’Alema and Bersani ally.  Though Renzi remains widely popular with the broader Italian electorate, Vendola, union leaders and the Italian left’s longtime power brokers, the left wing of the Democratic Party, and Letta himself all remain wary of Renzi, so Renzi’s election is by no means assured.   If Renzi wins (and even if he doesn’t), the centrosinistra will thereupon have to decide whether Renzi or Letta will lead it into the next elections, which are almost certain to take place in 2014 or 2015 at the latest.
  • The Five Star Movement remains a constant, unproductive force.  Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity and protest movement, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), continues to refuse to cooperate with either the Italian left or the Italian right.  Though it’s a mistake to deny the complexity of the movement’s positions and the frustration of the movement’s supporters with Italian politics, it’s been a fairly useless presence in the Italian senate beyond a repository for voicing protest — despite the defection of Paola De Pin and a handful of other M5S senators, the Five Star Movement voted almost universally against Letta’s government today.  That hasn’t necessarily dented its popularity, though, which remains relatively robust in polls — after dipping in recent months, it’s regaining strength, and it commands 21.4% support in an October 1 IPSOS poll.  That same poll indicated that Berlusconi’s move has backfired — after months of parity, the centrosinistra now leads the centrodestra by a margin of 35.1% to 32%, with the PD polling 30% to just 24% for the PdL; 7% of Italians continue to support Monti’s centrists.

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