What the Alfano-Berlusconi split means for Italian politics

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In a stunning weekend move, deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano, the longtime political heir of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, refused to join Berlusconi’s newly rechristened Forza Italia political group.  Instead, Alfano will form his own center-right faction, the Nuovo Centrodestra (or the ‘New Center-Right’).  Alfano, who also serves as the interior minister in the ‘grand coalition’ government headed by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta, disagreed with Berlusconi’s attempt in late September to bring down Letta’s government in order to make way for early elections — ultimately, even Berlusconi backed down when it came time to hold a vote of no confidence.

The timing of the split comes at a critical point for Berlusconi (pictured above, right, with Alfano) and the Italian center-right.  Berlusconi faces expulsion from the Senato (Senate), Italy’s upper parliamentary chamber, in a vote scheduled to take place on November 27 — a direct result of a final conviction against Berlusconi for tax evasion in relation to his corporate media empire.  He’s set to serve a one-year sentence sometime this autumn and, due to his age, Berlusconi has elected community service over prison.

Berlusconi is preparing to take his reduced Forza Italia core — essentially the renamed version of his longtime Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), which itself was known as Forza Italia between 1994 and 2007 – into opposition.

Most immediately, the new Alfano center-right faction’s emergence insulates the government from Berlusconi’s whims by delivering enough center-right senators and deputies to keep the government in place.  In that regard, Alfano’s move this weekend has done more to stabilize Italian politics for the foreseeable future than anything in the past seven months of the Letta government.  While Alfano still opposes Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate next week, Berlusconi seems unlikely to win against the combined force of the Italian left and the protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

The move could paint Alfano as a public servant willing to place governance and stability over scoring political points, and voters could reward Alfano when elections are held (still likely next year).  The move also makes it very likely that Alfano will lead the center-right into the next election, just as popular Florence mayor Matteo Renzi seems likely to win a landslide victory for the leadership of the Letta’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) in a vote that will be held on December 8.

Regardless of whether Letta, age 47, or Renzi, age 38, ultimately becomes the center-left prime ministerial candidate in the next election, a new generation of leadership is emerging in Italian politics — especially as the 43-year-old Alfano supplants the 77-year-old Berlusconi and other statesmen like Monti, age 70, and former Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, age 62, fade from the center of Italian politics.

But it’s been a maxim of Italian politics for the past two decades that you count out Berlusconi at your own risk.  

After his premiership tanked in 1995, Berlusconi returned in the 2000s to dominate Italian government for nearly the entire decade.  After his hasty 2011 departure, welcomed in nearly every corner of Europe from Berlin to London, he ran a wily campaign in the leadup to February 2013 election, riding a wave of popular discontent over a new property tax to lead the Italian center-right just shy of an upset victory over Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition.  The result divided the Senate and led to the ‘grand coalition’ that governs Italy today.

 

Many would-be successors of Silvio Berlusconi that have parted ways with Il Cavaliere over the years have also seen watched their political careers wilt.

So it was for Pier Ferdinando Casini, president of the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Italian parliament between 2001 and 2006, and the leader of the Union of the Center, the remnants of the Italian Christian Democratic party that dominated Italian government between 1945 and 1992.  Casini broke with Berlusconi shortly after the 2008 election, in part due to the sense of Berlusconi’s moral repugnance and in part due to Casini’s own social conservatism and ties to the Vatican on contentious issues like abortion and stem cell research.  In coalition with Monti in the February 2013 elections, Casini and the UdC lost all but eight of their previous 36 deputies.

So it was for Gianfranco Fini, who had an even stronger claim as Berlusconi’s heir apparent.  As the leader of the nationalist-conservative National Alliance, Fini came to politics in the Italian far right.  But as the National Alliance slowly merged with Berlusconi’s larger party, Fini moved further to the center of Italian politics — both in terms of power and in terms of ideology.  Fini served as deputy prime minister between 2001 and 2006 and as foreign minister from 2004 to 2006, and he succeeded Casini as president of the Chamber of Deputies between 2008 and 2013.

Like Casini, however, Fini broke with Berlusconi as well, forming his own new party, the Futuro e Libertà (Future and Freedom).  When Berlusconi resigned as prime minister in November 2011 in the midst of a bond yield crisis and under siege for tax evasion and cavorting with underage prostitutes, Fini appeared to be well-placed to lead the next generation of the Italian center-right.  But instead, Fini and his new party crashed in the February elections that the phoenix-like Berlusconi nearly won — Fini’s party won zero seats, and Fini failed to win a seat in the Italian parliament for the first time in 30 years.

Alfano’s new faction will include around 30 senators and 27 deputies, including all five of the center-right ministers currently serving in the Letta government and a handful of other key officials in the Italian center-right:

  • Maurizio Lupi, minister of infrastructure and transport;
  • Nunzia De Girolamo, minister of agriculture;
  • Beatrice Lorenzin, minister of health;
  • Gaetano Quagliariello, minister of constitutional reforms;
  • Giuseppe Scopelliti, regional president of Calabria;
  • Roberto Formigoni, the former longtime regional president of Lombardy (Italy’s most populous region);
  • Renato Schifani, former president of the Senate between 2008 and 2013; and
  • Fabrizio Cicchitto, former PdL leader in the Chamber of Deputies between 2008 and 2013.

In addition to the 111 seats currently held by the Democratic Party in the Senate, and the 19 seats elected as part of a coalition headed through the elections by former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, the 30 senators from Alfano’s faction and a handful of smaller regional party and independent senators will maintain a majority for Letta’s government.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the Democratic Party already controlled 297 seats, largely due to the automatic majority that the Democratic Party won as the predominant member of the winning center-left coalition — its more leftist ally, the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), headed by Puglia’s regional president Nichi Vendola, took its 37 seats into the opposition when Letta formed a grand coalition government with Alfano in April.

Though Monti’s centrist Scelta Civica (SC, Civic Choice) formally broke with its own electoral partner, the Christian democratic Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Center) when Monti resigned as party leader in October, both parties continue to support the government.

Taken together, the UdC’s eight deputies, the centrists’ 39 deputies, and the additional 27 deputies who will sit in the Alfano faction will give Letta’s government an ever wider majority in the lower house.

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