Renzi Wins Confidence Vote Despite Policy Uncertainties

Late Monday night, Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, cleared his first parliamentary hurdle by winning a confidence vote in the Senate.

The outgoing mayor of Florenco succeeds Enrico Letta, who resigned earlier this month under pressure from Renzi and his supporters in the Democratic Party.

The handover came with a partial cabinet reshuffle. Half the ministers are now women while Angelino Alfano, the leader of the junior center-right party, is no longer deputy prime minister. Read more “Renzi Wins Confidence Vote Despite Policy Uncertainties”

Letta’s Resignation Clears Way for Florence Mayor

Elio Di Rupo Enrico Letta
Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo greets his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta, in Brussels, May 1, 2013 (Flickr/Elio Di Rupo)

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta’s irrevocable resignation on Friday has opened the door for Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and leader of the ruling Democratic Party, to form a new government.

The shuffle had not been expected. After he was elected party leader in December, Renzi repeatedly insisted that he would not compromise the stability of Letta’s government. But the overwhelming support he had received in a party leadership contest resulted in a complicated cohabitation with the prime minister. Outside the government, Renzi could take strong initiatives on his own, such as striking a deal with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads the opposition Forza Italia party, to reform Italy’s electoral system. Read more “Letta’s Resignation Clears Way for Florence Mayor”

Small Parties Wary of Renzi-Berlusconi Electoral Reforms

The facade of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament, in Rome, October 23, 2010
The facade of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament, in Rome, October 23, 2010 (Stefano Maffei)

Italy’s politics may soon be reshaped fundamentally if Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, the leaders of the country’s two biggest parties, get their way.

The two have agreed to reform Italy’s electoral system, which left neither the left nor the right with a governing majority last year, resulting in months of bickering before a “grand coalition” was formed that has since been unable to pass major reforms.

The deal also aims to change the balance of power between the two legislative branches that has often led to weak majorities in the Senate. Read more “Small Parties Wary of Renzi-Berlusconi Electoral Reforms”

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 Splits After Failure to Bring Down Government

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

Disagreement within former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party looks certain to divide the Italian right into a new conservative party and a more liberal group, both derived from the media tycoon’s Il Popolo della Libertà.

Berlusconi long maintained a solid grip over his party but faced overt opposition when he proposed to quit the government of Enrico Letta last month. Many conservatives were unwilling to link his judicial struggles — Berlusconi was convicted for tax fraud in his media empire — with the stability of the ruling coalition. His deputy, Angelino Alfano, and four other conservative ministers initially resigned from Letta’s cabinet but later turned against their leader with the support of more than twenty senators, forcing Berlusconi into a humiliating retreat.

The episode was the first interruption in Berlusconi’s twenty year-long domination of Italy’s right-wing politics and paved the way for a definitive split between the “government doves” and “loyalist hawks.” Read more “Berlusconi’s Party Splits After Failure to Bring Down Government”

After Cabinet Walkout, Letta Seeks Majority to Avoid Elections

Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo greets his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta, in Brussels, May 1
Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo greets his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta, in Brussels, May 1 (Flickr/Elio Di Rupo)

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.

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 (European Council)

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.

Italy’s Letta Fails to Stabilize Coalition with Tax Cut

Enrico Letta
Italian prime minister Enrico Letta attends a meeting of the Party of European Socialists in Brussels, June 27 (PES)

After a months-long internal struggle that jeopardized the stability of Italy’s ruling coalition, Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced the lifting of two payments of a controversial housing tax last week. While a victory for the former premier, Silvio Berlusconi, who had conditioned his support for the government on repeal of the tax, the announcement did little to guarantee stability in the coalition for the long term.

Although the housing tax was implemented with Berlusconi’s party’s support during Mario Monti’s technocratic government, its abolition was the linchpin of his election campaign and one of the reasons he recovered so quickly in the polls ahead of February’s election, given that almost 80 percent of Italians own their own homes. Read more “Italy’s Letta Fails to Stabilize Coalition with Tax Cut”