Berlusconi spells more trouble ahead for Italy
09.09.13 @ 19:09
In the month following a Supreme Court decision to uphold a guilty verdict for tax evasion against former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, political instability in Italy has risen towards boiling point.
While a lower appeals court is reconsidering the length of an accompanying ban on holding public office handed down to Berlusconi, anti-corruption legislation introduced by Mario Monti’s technocratic administration in 2012 already prohibits felons convicted to jail terms exceeding two years from holding public office for six years.
The parliamentary process to forcibly remove the media billionaire from his seat in the Senate begins on 9 September.
The duration of an impeachment involving votes at both committee and plenary level in Italy’s upper legislative chamber is still highly uncertain. Bur it seems overwhelmingly likely it will eventually result in Berlusconi’s successful impeachment.
Correspondingly, speculation has mounted that "Il Cavaliere" is preparing the nuclear option of withdrawing his People of Freedom (PDL) party’s parliamentary support for Italy’s cross-party coalition, precipitating Italy’s second general election of 2013.
Yet, four factors suggest fresh elections this year are by no means inevitable.
First, despite his capricious character, it is not a foregone conclusion that impeachment will result in Berlusconi calling time on the current centre-right, centre-left power sharing arrangement.
Granted, a hawkish wing within the PDL will push for such an outcome.
However, reluctant to shoulder sole responsibility for bringing down the government and triggering further financial market turmoil, the three-time prime minister may yet hesitate to pull the plug.
Unwillingness to bring down the government could also allow the PDL to gain credit for an economy, which, despite an unnecessarily large dose of fiscal austerity, appears to be finally stabilising after a two-year recession.
ON top of this, the centre-right is ill-prepared for new elections, with re-launching the PDL as Forza Italia, possibly under the nominal leadership of Berlusconi’s daughter, Marina, necessary before heading to the polls.
Second, rather than prematurely bringing down the government, the PDL may attempt to prolong the impeachment process.
A Faustian pact with the centre-left to draw out the impeachment hearing and maintain a measure of temporary political cohesion cannot be ruled out, despite appearing improbable.
Delaying tactics include a Supreme Court appeal over the legality of the impeachment, or, over its alleged retroactive application in the case Berlusconi, whose tax fraud offences took place in the early 2000s before the ineligibility legislation came into force.
Third, Italy’s largest centre-left party, the Democrat Party (PD) is also not yet ready for elections.
Replete with internal divisions over leadership, policy and the decision to enter the coalition with Berlusconi, the PD will elect a new leader this autumn, suggesting it will avoid a new poll until party stability can be restored after the potentially fractious contest.
Fourth, and most significantly, the present coalition’s capitulation would not in itself automatically trigger an election, with President Giorgio Napolitano enjoying sole prerogative for dissolving Italy’s parliament.
In all probability, Napolitano would first seek to establish an alternative government, either a minority PD administration or a coalition supported by PDL or 5 Stars Movement rebels, before calling a new poll.
The President has already indicated his unwillingness to call fresh elections before parliament has ratified the 2014 budget and a new electoral law that is necessary to avoid a re-run of February’s inconclusive result.
While political tensions this autumn will undoubtedly escalate, on balance it seems most likely that elections will not take place in 2013.
However, the dissolution of parliament next year, as early as the spring, does appear increasingly probable.
The current political horseplay, almost beyond parody, highlights how more than a generation of Italian public representatives have fundamentally failed the country’s electorate.
In the absence of a wholesale change of leadership and personnel in both Italy's principle centre-left and centre-right parties, or the emergence of credible alternative political forces, the process of governance in eurozone’s third largest economy, and implementation of much-needed structural reform will remain implausible.
To this end, the prospect of a successful impeachment of Berlusconi, new centre-left leadership, and elections in 2014 provides some cause for optimism.
Mark Willis is an economist and political analyst who has worked for Roubini Global Economics and the Economist Intelligence Unit