Silvio Berlusconi: delaying trials

Italian political crisis: Anti-working class stalemate

The contending parties cannot agree on how to make workers pay for the crisis. Toby Abse reports

The Italian political crisis continues. Three weeks after the general election of February 24-25, Mario Monti is still in office as a caretaker premier and there is no certainty either about who will form the next government or about the likelihood of the current stalemate continuing and precipitating a second general election in late June.1

Pierluigi Bersani, the leader of the centre-left Partito Democratico, is attempting what may prove to be impossible: to form a centre-left government with a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but no majority in the Senate, where he would be reliant on support from Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) on a case-by-case basis. He has repeatedly proposed to Grillo that M5S give support to a PD-led government (which would also include the rather more leftwing Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà - SEL) on a programmatic basis, drawing up a list of eight points which would appear to correspond to some of the major demands of M5S, including dealing with the ‘conflict of interest’ (in other words, making it impossible for anybody to have a near monopoly of commercial television and be prime minister or the holder of some other major political office at the same time) and bringing in a new, much more serious anti-corruption law.2 Grillo has repeatedly rejected any such offer and often indulged in his habitual personal abuse of Bersani, calling him, amongst other things, a “dead man talking”.

Bersani’s strategy has not met with universal approval in the ranks of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated PD, although he survived the first attempt to depose him in the aftermath of the election ‘half victory’, made at the first meeting of the PD’s direzione (leadership body) a few days after the results came out. Various figures from the old guard of the party - the generation that presided over the liquidation of the old Partito Comunista Italiano in 1991 and then led all the ‘post-communist’ successor organisations of that liquidationist majority down to 2008, most notably Massimo D’Alema and Walter Veltroni3 - have made no secret of their opposition to Bersani’s opening to M5S.

D’Alema is the political figure most heavily identified with the idea of an inciucio (a widely used slang term not found in mainstream Italian dictionaries, but best translated as ‘stitch-up’) with Berlusconi in a rerun of the ill-fated Bicamerale (Bicameral Commission for Constitutional Reform) of 1996-98. The inciucio gave Berlusconi a means of escaping any serious measures against ‘conflict of interest’, when the more straightforward Romano Prodi - at that stage the centre-left prime minister - might well have implemented them, by bogging the centre-left down in a prolonged and ultimately pointless discussion of various possible constitutional reforms.

Grand coalition?

D’Alema has made no secret of his desire for a grand coalition between the PD and Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà. D’Alema likes to think of himself as in some way like Palmiro Togliatti, when he involved himself in the national unity government of 1944-47, or perhaps Berlinguer at the time of the ill-fated ‘historic compromise’ between the PCI and the Democrazia Cristiana in 1976-79. However, it is hard to gauge to what extent D’Alema really believes these myths, which place him within the tradition of the old PCI, rather than just seeking personal aggrandisement for himself.4 In the last few days it was widely believed that D’Alema’s motivation in suggesting that the presidency of the Senate might be given to the PdL was part of an intrigue designed to get himself elected president of the republic in succession to Giorgio Napolitano (who is coming to the end of his seven-year term) with the support of Berlusconi and the PdL - doubtless in return for some sort of de facto safe conduct for Berlusconi in relation to his numerous legal problems.

Walter Veltroni’s strategy appears to be slightly different: he seems to favour another technocratic government led by Monti or some similar figure rather than a more political grand coalition, but in practice the distinction is a bit hazy, since a technocratic government would require a ‘strange majority’ involving both the PD and PdL, just as Monti’s administration did between November 2011 and December 2012. Both D’Alema and Veltroni are still smarting from being ‘scrapped’, or having to ‘scrap’ themselves, as Bersani came under pressure from his younger rival, ‘the scrapper’, Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence and leader of the PD’s right wing, to get rid of the PD’s old guard when candidate lists for parliament were being drawn up.

However, much as the two old stagers hate Renzi and each other, they are all united in opposing Bersani’s opening to M5S, even if Renzi with his totally vacuous obsession with youth has to be a bit more careful in attacking the Grillini (as Beppe’s followers are known), who have by far the youngest parliamentary group in the current legislature. Renzi is believed to want to delay the elections for some months, as a June election would make it virtually impossible for him to topple Bersani as party leader in the interim. On the other hand, an autumn election might give credibility to a second round of primaries within the PD, in which Renzi could attack Bersani as a political failure as well as a representative of the older generation.

Bersani’s most solid supporters in the PD are a grouping known to journalists as the ‘Young Turks’ which does include Stefano Fassina, the leader of the PD’s left wing, although one must stress that to characterise anybody within the PD as leftwing is to employ a relative term - even if one might suggest that some of these are closer to traditional social democracy and less keen on the American Democrats as a model.

Mario Monti, despite his continuing tenure as premier, was the biggest loser in the general election and his influence seems to be declining by the week. He has publicly quarrelled with president Napolitano, who rebuked him for his abortive attempt to become president of the Senate as a stepping stone towards becoming the next president of the republic. Napolitano told him it was his duty to remain as premier for ‘the sake of the country’, which was really code for ‘the sake of the markets’.

In the course of this scheme, which was abandoned before any formal candidacy was announced because of Napolitano’s hostile reaction, Monti seems to have had a meeting with Berlusconi himself, rather than some more presentable representative of the PdL - something which went down very badly with the PD - whilst failing to regain the favour of the PdL, who resent him for replacing Berlusconi in November 2011. Even within his own centrist block in parliament, Monti seems to be losing ground to the veteran Christian Democrat, Pierferdinando Casini, who seems more willing to do deals with the PD and less accommodating to Berlusconi.

At the European level, although the European People’s Party was prepared to listen to a long harangue from Monti about Berlusconi’s unreliability in relation to austerity, there is no longer any realistic chance that Berlusconi will be expelled from the EPP (unless he becomes totally toxic for purely judicial as opposed to political reasons). Indeed Angela Merkel has ended up as the most vocal exponent of a grand coalition between the PD and PdL, seeing Grillo as a greater threat to the German government’s vision of Europe than the man who personally insulted her on more than one occasion.

Eye troubles

Berlusconi is desperately anxious to be involved in both any new government and the choice of a new president. It is clear that, whilst he may have fought the election on an anti-austerity, anti-German and somewhat Europhobic platform, the only issue that concerns him now is justice - or, to be more exact, avoiding it. A number of his trials have reached a critical stage. The Ruby case, in which he is accused of using the services of an under-age prostitute, has stalled after a hearing in which the magistrate’s summing up had started. Berlusconi is clearly expecting a guilty verdict, so his primary concern is to prevent the court from sitting on one pretext or another.

It is hard to believe that his eye troubles, which started as the election campaign was nearing its close and led to the cancellation of his closing rally in Naples, are entirely unconnected with this case. Whether the conjunctivitis, which has allegedly taken some more exotic and unusually complicated form, is an illness with a large psychosomatic component or an outright fraud is difficult to assess, since Berlusconi is now wont to go round wearing the darkest of dark glasses when he is not covering his eyes with his hands or very ostentatiously wiping them, as he did in a picture of the Senate session which went round the world and even got reproduced in the Evening Standard. It is true that he spent a week in hospital allegedly being treated for this terrible complaint, which did not seem to stop him from holding marathon meetings with about a dozen close political associates in his large private room more or less every day of his confinement, but it should be pointed that it was a private hospital in Milan with which he and the PdL’s Roberto Formigoni, the now disgraced former president of the Lombard region, had very close and longstanding connections.

The magistrates in one of Berlusconi’s court cases - this one concerned with financial rather than sexual irregularities - were not satisfied with the doctor’s note provided and sent their own doctor to the hospital,5 who expressed the opinion that, whilst the patient was probably not fit enough to endure cross-examination or to make a long statement, his health would in fact have permitted him to attend the court hearing in question, at which neither of these two things were required.

Berlusconi has made a number of inflammatory attacks on the magistrates and is calling a national demonstration against them for Saturday March 23. Moreover, he has said that if the next president of the Republic is from the left (as he defines it) he will call upon his followers to take to the streets. He ever more frequently compares himself to Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist premier who claimed to be a victim of persecution when he was convicted of bribery and corruption. According to Berlusconi, the magistrates have a similar fate in store for him - although he has not yet said that he will flee the country in the event of a conviction, as his erstwhile patron did.

Given the real possibility that a knockout blow might finally be delivered to Berlusconi, Grillo’s refusal to make a temporary deal with the PD to pass some legislation that would bring the tycoon’s political career to an end is an indication of the gap between rhetoric and reality within M5S. This gap has led to some tension even within the M5S parliamentary group, as recent events in the Senate have shown. The election of a new president of the Senate (roughly the equivalent of the speaker, but having somewhat greater prestige in terms of the Italian state hierarchy) was bound to lead to political deals or quarrels, since unlike the Chamber of Deputies, in which the centre-left coalition has an outright majority and therefore could guarantee the election of its chosen candidate, no political grouping possesses a Senate majority.

M5S started off by putting forward its own candidates for the presidency of both houses, but in the Senate it was eventually faced with having to vote for either the PD or PdL candidate. Grillo instructed his followers that they should abstain, as there was absolutely nothing to choose between the two coalitions. There was a long and very noisy meeting of the M5S Senate delegation, which, despite all the talk of transparency, and even promises of live streaming, was in fact held behind closed doors, with journalists listening to the shouting from outside.

The PD’s candidate was Pietro Grasso, previously a leading anti-Mafia magistrate,6 whilst the PdL’s was Renato Schifani, a Sicilian former justice minister who had devised the Lodo Schifani, one of Berlusconi’s made-to-measure laws allowing him to avoid appearing at his trials, and had been the object of judicial inquiries in relation to alleged involvement with the Mafia. It is claimed that a vote was taken at the M5S meeting, in which a large minority supported Grasso but the majority voted for abstention. In the event, about a dozen broke ranks in the secret ballot, so that Grasso beat Schifani with M5S assistance. The bulk of the dissidents seem to have been Sicilians or southern Italians - all too familiar with organised crime and aware of how their voters might respond if, by default, they handed the post to an alleged Mafioso.

Grillo’s initial response was to threaten them with expulsion, even if he seems to have drawn back from this intransigent position - whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen.



1. Sunday June 30 and Monday July 1 are the days that have been suggested. The current parliament would need to elect a new president to replace Napolitano before any dissolution (or conceivably to re-elect Napolitano for a second term, as Berlusconi has suggested recently at least as a possibility).

2. The anti-corruption law brought in during the period of Monti’s technocratic government and dependent on Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà for support resolved nothing and some have argued that certain changes actually made things worse, allowing more of those involved in corruption to evoke the statute of limitations at an earlier stage.

3. D’Alema and Veltroni are in some ways a duo like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in that both are equally complicit in the liquidationist project, but consumed by intense personal rivalry. Veltroni did at one stage promote himself as the Italian Tony Blair and one might see D’Alema as the more traditionalist figure, although like the post-1994 Brown he was not really to the left of his rival in any fundamental sense.

4. The Bicamerale of 1996-98 seemed a prelude to his own replacement of Prodi as prime minister. Although Prodi’s government appeared to fall because of an ideological clash with Bertinotti, who refused to continue giving the centre-left external support, Prodi and his close associates have always been inclined to the view that D’Alema stabbed him in the back.

5. This is nothing like as extraordinary as it seems. If an ordinary person in Italy is absent from work for more than a very short period, the employer has the right to impose a medical visit upon them by somebody who is not their own physician. As has so often been the case, Berlusconi felt himself above the ranks of common mortals, making a mockery of the signs in every courtroom that say, ‘The law is equal for all’.

6. It is worth noting that originally the PD proposed putting forward two of its long-serving parliamentarians, Anna Finocchiaro for the presidency of the Chamber and Dario Franceschini (who succeeded Veltroni and preceded Bersani as PD leader) for the presidency of the Senate. A conscious decision was then taken to put forward Laura Boldrini for the Chamber and Pietro Grasso for the Senate; neither of these candidates had been in parliament before and both could in some sense be seen as part of civil society - Boldrini, who was elected on the SEL list, had worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, whilst Grasso was a former magistrate who had no previous strong association with any political party. This tactic was not just designed as a method of demonstrating to the voters that the PD was capable of renewing itself in response to the criticisms of party politics by M5S, but also as a means of putting M5S itself to the test, making it more difficult for it to justify abstaining or voting against such candidates.