Italy: Breaking Berlusconi, and Saving Letta

Published on October 1, 2013

The Italian government, aided in no small part by Silvio Berlusconi, is perhaps the only political system in the developed nations able to hold a candle to the US Congress for dysfunctional theatrics, bu they may be about to pass that dubious baton now fully on to Washington.

*** After months of bullying and threats from a Berlusconi increasingly fearful of imminent ejection from the Senate for his legal convictions, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has finally given up and turned on his coalition partner, and has succeeded in breaking enough of a wedge between Senators in Berlusconi’s PdL party and their embattled leader to assure a continuation of his government without constant duress from Berlusconi. ***

*** That stability should last – if all goes as planned by Letta and PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano – at least up to or even through Italy’s EU semester, in the second half of 2014, as elections will be unlikely throughout the duration of Italy’s EU Presidency, and a newly formed PdL fraction will need time to get organized for a vote. ***

*** A confidence vote for Letta now looks almost guaranteed to pass (and therefore will be held) tomorrow in the Italian Senate. Berlusconi is attempting a rear guard movement to keep his PdL defectors in check, and renegotiate with Letta, but those efforts appear to be coming too late to turn the frustrated and now emboldened Letta back, or to keep the defectors looking at their own political future, in place. ***

*** Importantly, many of these defectors, led by party head Angelino Alfano, come from relatively “safe” seats where they command a degree of personal recognition, and so there is speculation in political circles that they could also be amenable to working with the PD towards some form of long-awaited electoral law reform. Specifically, they could allow for proportional elections where voters express “preference voting” for a candidate, as opposed to electing a slate with the name filled in later by party elders. An agreement on future voting is especially important in light of a December 3 deadline and expectation of a negative Constitutional Court ruling on the current electoral system. ***

Electoral Landscape and the Challenge from Within

A “preference voting” system is ironically also supported by and would benefit some of the establishment wing candidates of Letta’s center left PD who preside over established local power bases. By getting agreement on this issue, Letta would thus not just be putting himself in a stronger position vis-a-vis the difficult Berlusconi, but also within his own party vis-a-vis rival Matteo Renzi.

The Renzi-Letta relationship is still perhaps the hardest of all to read. Renzi is likely to become the next party secretary – however, PD elder Massimo D’Alema would love to limit his role to candidate of the party in order to control him better. D’Alema therefore recently suggested that, because of emergency, the December 8th party congress should just elect the next candidate and not the next secretary.

But Letta and the PD establishment is concerned that Renzi could cut a deal with D’Alema’s crew (with Renzi as PM candidate and the D’Alema faction in the party’s driver seat, surviving a Renzi “tornado”) that would leave Letta and his ally Bersani’s troops deprived of any representation.

And the fact that the PD found agreement on the rules of its upcoming congress, and in particular on the primary vote process, opening that vote to non-members, has all but given Matteo Renzi the keys to the party leadership. This is not just a threat to Letta, but it has also put Berlusconi – and wavering PdL members – on notice that the next PD candidate could have a strong mandate right off the bat indeed.

An Outreach to PdL Defectors

Letta therefore has increasingly needed and began reaching out to PdL big names including not just party leader Angelino Alfano, but also from what we understand Gaetano Quagliariello, Beatrice Lorenzin, Fabrizio Cicchitto, and possibly former Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno.

All are leaders who can carry other delegates with them and guarantee a relatively durable fracture of the PdL that could keep Letta’s government in place until Italy’s turn at the EU presidency in the second semester of 2014.

The reported aim of the would-be defectors would be to build a moderate center-right party, separated from extremists like Daniela Santanche’ and Michaela Biancofiore or Berlusconi yes-men such as Daniele Capezzone. Never to be underestimated, Berlusconi could and probably will still forge ahead with his revived Forza Italia as a party centered on himself. This is after all a fight for power and succession in the center-right just as much as it is a fight for survival by Letta.

There is even some speculation that Alfano has spoken to Letta about a possible future “new” Christian Democrat alliance that could include moderate PdL elements together with centrist PD members. That broad umbrella could include members from the PD (Enrico Letta, Giuseppe Fioroni, Dario Franceschini), the Civic Center (Mario Monti, Perferdinando Casini) and the PdL (Angelino Alfano, Giorgio Straquadanio, Maurizio Lupi).

For now, a Parliamentary debate and confidence vote has been confirmed will take place tomorrow, on Wednesday, and Letta will win. But beyond mere survival of a confidence vote, Letta may now manage with Alfano to usher in a new period of relative stability, with a reshaped political landscape in Italy.

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