Berlusconi Ban Strengthens Italy’s Ruling Coalition

Without his obstinate predecessor banned from public office, Enrico Letta has a more stable majority.

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta listens to a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, October 17
Italian prime minister Enrico Letta listens to a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, October 17 (Palazzo Chigi)

Silvio Berlusconi’s ejection from the Italian Senate and the withdrawal of his loyalists from the ruling coalition leaves Prime Minister Enrico Letta is a stronger position, at least in the short term. But his septuagenarian predecessor isn’t giving up.

Four months after Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud at his media empire, a majority of lawmakers in the upper chamber on Wednesday rejected all of his party’s appeals against the application of an anti-corruption law and voted to expel the man who has dominated Italian politics for two decades. Without any legal or political tool left to challenge the decision, the disgraced politician and media tycoon may opt for community service to avoid house arrest and, most importantly, is barred from standing for public office for six years.

The impact on the conservatives’ parliamentary activity is marginal, as Berlusconi had a staggering 99.94 percent absence rate. He only showed up during a confidence vote in October when he reluctantly supported Letta’s government after having threatened to withdraw his party from the coalition — which prompted Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano to lead a rebellion against Berlusconi’s loyalists and split from the party.

Berlusconi’s political life is also far from over. Immediately after Wednesday’s vote, he gathered a few thousand of his supporters to announce that he will “keep fighting” because only with a conservative majority would they have the “power to change the Constitution” and overcome that “day of mourning for democracy.”

The reference, which reeked of the days when the far-left paramilitary movement Brigate Rosse wrecked havoc in Italy, was aimed at the judiciary which Berlusconi has repeatedly accused of subverting democracy.

Ditching the statesmanlike image he projected earlier this year, when Berlusconi called for a grand coalition between his own party and the left to “revive the economy,” the conservative leader is now escalating his campaign against the institutions of state and starting to wage a permanent campaign on behalf of his revamped party, Forza Italia.

Polls show 21 percent of Italians supporting Forza Italia but a growing number of regional and local deputies is defecting to Alfano’s less confrontational Nuovo Centrodestra. The balance between these two parties on the right will probably decide Berlusconi’s fate. New elections are unlikely to lead to his downfall as Berlusconi positions himself as an anti-establishment leader, mirroring the effective Five Star Movement’s permanent opposition. However, it does look to be the first time since 1994 that Berlusconi does not have substantial influence on government policy nor the political weight to thwart legislative initiatives.

Without Forza Italia in the coalition, the government can rely on a more stable majority in parliament. It will no longer have to cope with demands from within its own ranks to weaken the independence of the courts nor with Euroskeptics who are now in opposition on both the left and the right.

If there are to be adjustments, in fiscal or labor policy, they will likely come from within Letta’s Partito Democratico. Matteo Renzi, the liberal mayor of Florence, could be an ally of the prime minister’s but failed to win more than 50 percent support in a first voting round for the party’s leadership. Even if Renzi manages to stave off a left-wing challenge, he will have more legitimacy and support than Letta, who was a relatively obscure party insider before he was appointed premier earlier this year. That could force him to pay more attention to the concerns of his own members.