I have a confession to make. In some ways, I admire Silvio Berlusconi. Sure, he has been disastrous for Italy’s economy and its democracy. But, as a political animal, he has qualities which I (grudgingly) admire: stamina, determination and ruthlessness. Over the past 20 years, he has always put his own interests first – before those of his party, his allies, his voters and his country. Never giving up and never baulking at taking whatever unsavoury action is necessary to protect himself.
We saw the latest example of this on Saturday evening when Berlusconi ordered the ministers from his PDL party to resign their posts in Enrico Letta’s broad coalition government encompassing the two main parties of the centre-left PD (of which Letta is a member) and the centre-right PDL. Just a few days earlier, Letta had been in New York telling Wall Street investors how political stability is essential for Italian growth. Oops.
Officially, the reason given on Saturday was that the PDL cannot possibly remain in government because it opposes a planned rise in VAT. But this is nonsense. The fact that later this week a Senate committee is likely to strip Berlusconi of his seat following his recent conviction has far more to do with it. As I wrote here at the start of August, Berlusconi was never going to lie down and accept that verdict or its consequences. To borrow from Dylan Thomas: Silvio’s political career would not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And so it has been. The judges have been accused for the umpteenth time of conducting a witch-hunt and of going against the wishes of millions of Italians who voted for Berlusconi’s party. This latter charge of course is typically populist, as I wrote here 10 days ago. It wilfully ignores those irritating checks and balances of liberal democracy, such as the rule of law and the idea that nobody should be above it. It usurps the language of democracy to cast as undemocratic those unelected figures (the judges) that dare to challenge He who is elected by the people (Berlusconi).
Such notions have long been central to Berlusconi’s message. As Giuliano Bobba and I show in a paper I am presenting at the Australian Political Studies Association Conference in Perth, the PDL has based a large part of its communication strategy on the claim that it is not Berlusconi who is to blame for Italy’s problems, but a series of elites who have acted against the interests of the Italian people: the centre-left, first and foremost, but also the judges, the president of the republic, the European Union, Angela Merkel and the media (those parts of it which the Berlusconi family does not control, of course). The implication is always that Berlusconi and the Italian people are the victims. United in their suffering. But that they could be so happy together were it not for their enemies.
So, what now? Saturday’s announcement does not, on its own, mean the end of the government. That would require a vote in parliament or Letta taking the initiative and resigning. But, at the very least, it is a huge warning shot over the bows of the PD ahead of the vote on Berlusconi in the senate. Not very subtly, it says: “Kick me out of the senate and into house arrest and I’ll kick you out of the government and into a general election.” The PDL will dress it up differently, claiming it is to do with unpopular tax increases, but the game is – as it has almost always been over the past two decades – all about Berlusconi.
Letta and the PD thus find themselves between a sharp rock and a very hard place: cave into Berlusconi (infuriating their already beleaguered and mortified supporters) or risk an election which, given the current electoral law and the support levels of the various parties, is unlikely to deliver anyone a majority: ie. a big expensive waste of time which would damage the country and resolve nothing. Of these two options, the first seems too outrageous for even the pliant PD leadership to contemplate.
The only hope for Letta continuing in office, therefore, is that he attracts enough dissident senators from the PDL and the Five-Star Movement to be able to form a new government. As things stand, that seems fraught with difficulties, although it is not impossible. However, even if it did happen, it would almost surely be a stop-gap measure, just long enough to pass a better electoral law and then go to the polls. So, whatever the scenario, we can take it as odds-on that Italians will be voting in a general election sooner rather than later – having last done so a mere seven months ago.
On Sunday, Silvio Berlusconi turned 77. Before blowing out his candles, he turned the lights down on the government. Once again showing us all that you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks. More fools, once again, those that thought they could.