Here’s why I like Italian politics. My recent Sharpener post on the state of the two major Italian alliances concluded that a key concern of both Berlusconi and Prodi is securing the loyalty of the former Christian Democrats who are in their coalition and, if possible, luring across some of those on the other side. And:
In this game Prodi is faring conspicuously better than Berlusconi. The leftish ex-Christian Democrats of ‘the Daisy’ are resigned, if not positively committed, to an eventual merger with the ‘Left Democrats’; by contrast, Pierferdinando Casini of ‘Christian Democrats United’ periodically makes pointed comments about having his own electorate to represent and not wanting to be a follower of Berlusconi all his life. The dream of rebuilding the centre also seems more likely to damage Berlusconi than Prodi. One ‘centre’ splinter has already flaked off from Casini’s party: Marco Follini, Casini’s predecessor as party leader, now leads a tiny new party called ‘Middle Italy’. The chances are that Follini’s going nowhere, but his defection hasn’t helped Berlusconi.
That was the 23rd of November. On the 2nd of December Berlusconi presided over a huge rally of his coalition, widely seen – not least by Berlusconi himself – as the first step towards a federation, and ultimately a single party of the Right. The only person on the scene missing was Casini, who unfortunately had a prior engagement – addressing a rally of his own party. The snub hasn’t gone unnoticed; Berlusconi’s immediate reaction was to demand that Casini ‘come back’, adding a warning that he’d better make it soon. Casini’s response:
I don’t accept ultimatums from Berlusconi or anyone else – I was fighting the Left when I was in short trousers … My job is not to ape Berlusconi or to dance along behind him, but to win over disillusioned Prodi voters
Berlusconi’s reply also deserves quoting: “I was just making a joke when I said that we were rearing the fatted calf and that we’d kill it when Casini’s party came back. And I said, jokingly, that I hoped they came back soon, because otherwise somebody else would get to eat the fatted calf. It was just a joke – it’s not my nature to make threats.” Say what you like about Berlusconi, he’s got a sense of humour.
There are regional elections in Italy next March; Casini’s party has its annual conference the month before. If Casini breaks with Berlusconi and brings his party with him, Berlusconi can forget about coming out ahead at those elections – or any other elections. If Casini breaks with Berlusconi and leaves his party, the party is going to suffer – as is Berlusconi’s coalition. The one thing that isn’t going to happen is Casini bowing the knee and taking his place alongside Berlusconi’s other lieutenants, Bossi of the Northern League and Fini of Alleanza Nazionale. They both need Berlusconi to give them respectability and a way into national politics. Casini seems to have realised that he doesn’t.
And this is why I like Italian politics: there’s always something going on. The multiform polarisation of the main political parties, together with the inherent fragility of coalition politics, makes for an unusual combination: it’s machine politics, only it’s played out with real issues. Ironically (if predictably) both Berlusconi and Prodi want to build single parties, putting an end both to the uneasy coalitions which give Italian politicians leverage and to the small parties which enable them to stand for identifiable principles. So enjoy it while it last: in ten years’ time Italian politics may have been normalised into Anglo-American torpor.