ast week I was in Kristiansund, in northwest Norway, visiting my sister, brother in law, and their two children.
My father joined me on the trip. Every morning he’d wake up sighing. “They just can’t seem to get him!” he’d say. He was referring to the inability of Italy’s judiciary branch and its politicians to force twice-convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of public life.
In May, Berlusconi was convicted on tax fraud charges and banned from holding office. In June he was convicted again, this time for abuse of office, and again banned from holding office. His tax fraud appeal has already failed.
Berlusconi’s name came up again over dinner. Perhaps being in Norway, a country that generally follows the rules, makes the Italian leader’s stubborn unwillingness to back down so fascinating, and stupefying. “How is it possible that he is still there?” This time the words came from my my brother-in-law. My father just shook his head. Words elude most people on the topic.
Now, Berlusconi has gone a step further, withdrawing cabinet-level support from the already fragile government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a move that Letta labeled as “mad, irresponsible and aimed exclusively at covering up his personal affairs,” referring to the tax fraud conviction.
Berlusconi made his move just ahead of a Senate vote that probably would have led to his expulsion, in keeping with the verdict and the ban. Berlusconi, while attacking the judiciary, insisted he’d pulled the plug to protest an increase in Italy’s sales tax. Letta called him a liar.
If all this gamesmanship seems like a squalid version of the Danish political drama “Borgen,” that’s because it is: political scheming, and not public welfare, is the name of the Italian game.
Now it’s again up to weary President Giorgio Napolitano, who fought for months to find a way out of the crisis or agree to let the country hold snap elections — which according to most polls would leave Italy just as divided as it was the last time it voted in February.
As the eurozone’s third largest economy, it’s essential that Italy avoid relapsing into turmoil. The country remains mired in its worst recession in decades. It is in dire need of strong leadership.
But the depth and acrimony of daily political warring (even within the leading parties) makes any realistic prospect of such leadership unlikely.
Beppe Grillo, who heads the dissident Five Star Movement that was hugely successful in the February vote, has again called for new elections (his mantra for months). His party, which won more than 25 percent of the vote in February, has refused to back any of the country’s mainstream parties, seeking their dismantling instead. A new round of voting, and an outright majority for his radical, anti-establishment bloc, he has said on his blog, is the only way to save Italy.
Others, like Deputy Economics Minister Stefano Fassina, a member of Letta’s Democratic Party, insist that without immediate structural adjustments, particularly electoral reforms, election results will solve nothing and potentially open the door to a state of permanent deadlock.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of the Berlusconi pullout was its timing. It came just after Letta, in New York City, had told high-profile Wall Street investors that Italy was “young, virtuous and credible.” Now, of course, markets are again uneasy — and Letta is rightly embarrassed.
In July, Standard & Poor downgraded Italy’s status to just two levels above junk status, warning of a further downgrade “by one notch or more” unless Italy could not demonstrate “institutional and governance effectiveness.”
So where to now?
Napolitano has said he’ll do everything in his power to avoid snap elections. It’s a task that will require not only calming down the hard-line Berlusconi faithful but also appealing to Letta’s Democratic Party supporters, many of who are understandably livid. Patching together a government under such circumstances may be too difficult even for the diplomatic Napolitano, who was called back to serve another presidential term — by Berlusconi of all people —when the divided parties couldn’t agree on a new president.
Berlusconi claims his party would win if elections were held now, something Grillo laughs at. Letta’s PD, meanwhile, is deeply divided, with reformers battling old school figures over the possible candidacy of Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi.
There’s a word for the current state of affairs, one my father would even agree with: debacle. Sadly, unlike “Borgen,” Italy is not a TV series, and it can’t be canceled.