After Cabinet Walkout, Letta Seeks Majority to Avoid Elections

The Italian prime minister hopes to draw dissident members of other parties into his coalition.

To avoid new elections after former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters withdrew from the cabinet on Saturday, President Giorgio Napolitano will push Prime Minister Enrico Letta to build a new majority with dissidents from the conservative party as well as the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Berlusconi’s decision came after months of infighting between the two ruling parties. He admitted on Saturday that he had urged the “Il Popolo della Libertà delegation to consider the possibility of resigning” from the government. Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano and four of his colleagues followed the septuagenarian leader’s advice immediately.

The move came as no surprise given the precarious balance that existed in the coalition since it was formed after an inconclusive election in February gave neither the left nor the right a mandate to govern with its traditional allies.

Berlusconi justified his action saying it would block unwelcome tax increases. However, the announcement coincided with a press release that said Berlusconi refused to appear before a Senate committee that is to decide whether to eject him from the body after he was convicted of tax fraud two months ago.

Journalist Gad Lerner argues that Berlusconi’s position outside the government was a comfortable one. While able to influence policymaking through conservative members of the cabinet, the former prime minister and media tycoon could also distance himself from unpopular measures that were enacted to avoid further debt increases.

Prime Minister Letta replied by highlighting Berlusconi’s duplicity, arguing that he was using a planned sales tax increase as an “excuse” to blow up the coalition and describing it as an “irresponsible act to cover up his personal affairs.” Berlusconi had vowed to repeal an unpopular housing tax during the campaign and knew that the government would have to find alternative sources of income.

While Berlusconi seems in campaign mode already, having revived his old party Forza Italia, the sudden decision to pull out of the government displeased some members of his party. Three of the resigning ministers reportedly stated they only acted to avoid new taxes but could cooperate to find a new majority and avoid reelections which would only destabilize the country.

Their stance is an overt invitation to Prime Minister Letta and his Democratic Party whose secretary has called for a new cabinet to approve the budget and change the electoral laws — which could also be interpreted as an attempt to draw dissatisfied members of the Five Star Movement into a coalition. Beppe Grillo, their leader, was quick to reiterate that they will not participate in any coalition but some fifteen members seem ready to support the government if it pursues targeted reforms. They could help the left secure a majority in the upper chamber where it currently lacks one.

It is now up to the president to stave off new elections, the outcome of which might not be much different from the last ones. He will probably try to keep Letta as prime minister with a different majority in both chambers to support him. It is unclear what such a majority of “dissidents” would look like, since Five Star Movement members are highly unlikely to share power with conservative representatives. Electoral reform, which should reduce the chance of a divided legislature emerging from national elections, combined with the need for financial stability, could be the glue that holds such an alliance together.

After consulting with Napolitano on Sunday, Letta announced that he will address both chambers on Wednesday. He is to ask for a confidence vote on a basic governing program. The outcome should reveal how many conservative members are ready to support him. If they aren’t, a cabinet reshuffle, including Five Star Movement dissidents, would be required to dodge the minority government option.

If hardliners will be in the majority on both ends of the political spectrum, Letta’s prime ministership is doomed. Worse, Italians will be sentenced to vote under the same law that produced this stalemate.