Italian Parties Draw Battle Lines Ahead of Election

Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Shinzō Abe of Japan attend a ceremony in Tokyo, August 3, 2015
Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Shinzō Abe of Japan attend a ceremony in Tokyo, August 3, 2015 (Palazzo Chigi)

Italian parties are drawing battle lines ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections:

  • Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, who hopes to become prime minister for a second time, has ruled out another grand coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Polls suggest such a left-right pact may be the only alternative to a Euroskeptic government.
  • Small left-wing parties have ruled out an alliance with the Democrats. Senate speaker Pietro Grasso, who broke with Renzi in October, is planning to lead a new party, which could split the left-wing vote in favor of the right and the populist Five Star Movement.
  • Berlusconi is appealing a ban from public office, owing to a conviction for tax fraud, to the European Court of Human Rights, but it is unlikely to rule in time for him to stand for election.
  • The formerly separatist Northern League, which splits the right-wing vote with Berlusconi’s party, has said it would rather go into government with the Five Star Movement than Renzi.
  • The Five Stars have ruled out coalitions altogether. Read more

Berlusconi Comeback in Italy Looks Like a Long Shot

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi adjusts his tie during a conference in Malta, March 30
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi adjusts his tie during a conference in Malta, March 30 (EPP)

Silvio Berlusconi is eying a comeback in Italy — again.

The eighty-year old former media tycoon, who was prime minister four times between 1994 and 2011, still leads Forza Italia, the country’s largest conservative opposition party.

But it is only polling around 14 percent support. So many things need to happen to put Il Cavaliere back in power that it looks like a long shot:

  • The European Court of Human Rights needs to overturn Berlusconi’s ban from public office. Elections must be held before May 2018, but Berlusconi can’t run again until 2019 due to a conviction for tax fraud. He is appealing the verdict.
  • The ruling center-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which are polling in first and second place, respectively, need to lose popularity.
  • So does the formerly separatist Northern League, which Matteo Salvini is transforming into a national right-wing populist force that is anti-euro and anti-immigration.
  • A new electoral law must have a high-enough threshold to prevent Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano’s center-right Popular Alternative from eating into Berlusconi’s margins — but not so high as to prevent the nationalist Brothers of Italy from winning seats. Berlusconi would need them for a majority. Read more

Italians Know What a European “Trump” Would Look Like

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 24, 2011
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 24, 2011 (European Council)

Italians may have a unique perspective on the presidential election in the United States. You might say they know what a Donald Trump presidency would be like. They had Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi is and was a successful businessman who used that as the foundation for his political career, leveraging his status as an outsider to win support.

When he first ran for office in the 1990s, Berlusconi was greeted with a fair amount of ridicule and derision. But he launched his conservative party, Forza Italia, when the country was in the middle of its biggest postwar political shakeup, which gave him an opening.

Sound familiar?

There’s more. Both men are brash and pride themselves on their political incorrectness. They marshal this to win over compatriots who feel left out in the prevailing political climate. Read more

In Italy, Berlusconi Comeback Seems Farfetched

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is welcomed at the headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France, March 27, 2010
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is welcomed at the headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France, March 27, 2010 (OECD/Benjamin Renout)

As Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, finishes ten months of community service, some conservatives are hoping for a comeback.

With the right divided, however, it seems unlikely the 78-year old can reclaim his central role in Italian politics.

Berlusconi still leads the right-wing Forza Italia party he founded two decades ago but is barred from returning to public office as a result of a conviction for tax fraud. He hopes the end of his sentence can get the ban overturned. But even if the courts agree, it seems Italians have tired of the former media tycoon who was premier four times between 1994 and 2011.

Polls show support for Forza Italia has nearly halved since Berlusconi was forced to resign at the height of the European sovereign debt crisis in late 2011, down from 25 to 13 percent.

Lega Nord, the northern separatist party that backed Berlusconi’s previous governments, is more popular. Leader Matteo Salvini has transformed the league into a populist anti-euro and anti-immigration party that can reasonably claim to be the only right-wing opposition.

Moderate conservatives have split from Forza Italia to form Nuovo Centrodestra, a splinter party that is led by incumbent interior minister, Angelino Alfano.

Nuovo Centrodestra supports the left-wing government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi who is Italy’s most popular politician by far.

Berlusconi, too, has done deals with Renzi in order to simplify Italy’s electoral system and reduce the Senate, which now shares lawmaking powers with the lower house of parliament, to a consultative body of regional deputies.

It is unclear if that alliance still holds. Forza Italia said last month the pact had been “broken” when Renzi failed to consult Berlusconi on the appointment of a new president. This week, Berlusconi announced he would oppose some of the measures backed by Renzi he previously supported, calling the prime minister’s Democratic Party “arrogant and domineering.”

Berlusconi Ban Strengthens Italy’s Ruling Coalition

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta in Rome, October 14
Italian prime minister Enrico Letta in Rome, October 14 (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 Democratic Party. 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.

Berlusconi’s Party Collapsing After Government Survives

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European People's Party summit, May 15, 2006
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European People’s Party summit, May 15, 2006 (EPP)

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta survived a confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday when the conservative leader, Silvio Berlusconi, shrank back from earlier threats to bring down his government.

Berlusconi, a former prime minister himself who was earlier convicted of tax fraud, pulled his ministers from Letta’s cabinet last week, ostensibly in protest to planned tax increases. However, Letta’s social democrats on Wednesday accused the septuagenarian media tycoon of forcing a government crisis to salvage his own political career.

Having been twice convicted, Berlusconi is not allowed under present law to remain a member of the Senate. The body, in which Letta’s party does not have an absolute majority, is due to eject him.

Dozens of Berlusconi’s own members were prepared to back the government despite their leader’s push for new elections — which, polls show, would have changed little in the political balance of power. Even Angelino Alfano, the conservative party secretary who was once seen as Berlusconi’s heir, broke with his patron and called on lawmakers to support the government from which he himself had resigned as interior minister on Saturday.

The rebellion in his own ranks forced Berlusconi into a humiliating retreat that could leave the Italian right leaderless when he is robbed of his Senate seat later this month.

The billionaire businessman has dominated conservative politics since he was first elected prime minister in 1994. Previous coups and internal splits did little to undermine his position, or his popularity. Twenty-five conservative senators, led by former Lombardy regional president Roberto Formigoni, nevertheless announced on Wednesday that they intended to form their own group. Fabrizio Cicchitto, a former socialist, led a similar revolt in the Chamber of Deputies where, La Repubblica reported, 26 members were prepared to split from Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libertà. Former health minister Beatrice Lorenzin was reportedly among them.

Letta, who took office in April after an election two months earlier gave neither the left nor the right a mandate to govern with its traditional allies, vowed to press on with budget reforms that are meant to keep Italy’s deficit under the European 3 percent treaty limit. He also pledged to change his nation’s electoral laws which give the two houses of parliament equal powers and make it difficult for any party to win a functioning majority.

Berlusconi Revamps Old Party as Senate Moves to Eject Him

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European Council meeting in Brussels, October 26, 2011
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives for a European Council meeting in Brussels, October 26, 2011 (The Council of the European Union)

In a dense night for Italian politics, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi used a video address Wednesday night to announce the revival of his twenty-year old party Forza Italia after the Senate had voted to deprive him of his seat hours earlier.

A majority of senators rejected Berlusconi’s defensive motion which argued that he should remain a member despite a tax fraud conviction earlier this year. Under a 2012 anti-corruption law, which was then supported by his own party, any politician sentenced to more than two years imprisonment should lose his seat.

The vote came after Berlusconi’s appeal to a parallel verdict for corruption was rejected by the courts. The former premier and business tycoon was ordered to pay almost €500 million in damages for the illicit acquisition of a publishing company in 1991. This closed another escape hatch for the disgraced politician as President Giorgio Napolitano is not allowed to grant amnesty to anyone who has been convicted twice — as Berlusconi’s devotees had requested.

A second vote is expected to be called in the Senate within ten days but the outcome is unlikely to be different. The final act should come next month when a plenary session of the body is to confirm the decision to rob Berlusconi of his seat.

Breaking a month long silence, Berlusconi invaded Italians’ homes on Wednesday with a prerecorded video message that was simultaneously broadcast across all major television networks when the outcome of the Senate vote was disclosed.

The announcement did not include substantial revelations and Berlusconi’s rhetoric was familiar. The former prime minister bashed a judiciary which he claimed was responsible for a “monstrous and political verdict” and allegedly orchestrating “the judiciary way to socialism.” Distancing himself from his ruling coalition with Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party, Berlusconi reiterated his election mantra, “less state power, less public spending, less taxes” — also distancing himself from his party’s support for austerity measures. He vowed to remain at voters’ side even outside parliament. “It is not the parliamentary seat that makes a leader,” he said, anticipating a possible resignation from the Senate before it can eject him.

Mirroring the mechanics that first propelled him to power in 1994, Berlusconi also announced the restart of Forza Italia, a party that was dissolved to make way for Il Popolo della Libertà between 2007 and 2009. This move had already been unveiled in June. Since then, Forza Italia logos have been appearing at Il Popolo della Libertà events.

Revamping Forza Italia is far from a substantial change. Il Popolo della Libertà had already been similar to the original since former foreign minister Gianfranco Fini’s conservative Alleanza Nazionale left the party in 2010. It is nevertheless a clear step to new elections.

Berlusconi did not, however, directly threaten the stability of the coalition. While inaugurating the new Forza Italia headquarters, he reassured the majority that a crisis would be destabilizing. “We will stay in the government until it reaches its obligations,” he promised.

Even if both ruling parties are assuring voters that the government is stable, it appears they are, in fact, both preparing for another confrontation. Letta’s social democrats are approaching their party congress while Berlusconi is preparing for a revamped campaign. Once more, autumn could be the dark season of Italian politics.