We’ve already said goodbye

[Updated and bumped up, 14/4 and 19/4. It’s quite a story.]

Like Clive, I’ve seen better comment on the Italian elections in blogs than on newsprint. I think particular credit is due to Alex, the only person I’ve seen suggest that Berlusconi won’t go if he loses. I thought he was being far too melodramatic at the time, but apparently not.

On the 12th of April Prodi and Berlusconi had appointments (separately) with Ciampi, the 85-year-old President of the Republic; Berlusconi spent his time haranguing Ciampi and demanding a recount (“What about you, which side are you on? We know that we’ve been cheated; it’s your duty to check.”) Italian electoral law recognises several types of spoilt ballot paper; at the moment the schede contestate – papers which have been claimed by more than one party – are being recounted and may be admitted as valid. But, although there are 43,000 schede contestate among the votes cast for the Camera – where Prodi’s coalition won by a majority of 24,000 – it’s highly unlikely that they’re all going to come out as votes for Berlusconi; in practice they seem likely to split fairly evenly. With this in mind, Berlusconi is calling for a recount of all spoilt ballot papers – which he estimates at a million – or possibly all ballot papers full stop. This would require a new law; however, Berlusconi is still Prime Minister, and as such he could pass a decreto (a Prime Ministerial decree, which becomes law immediately but lapses after sixty days unless it has been endorsed by Parliament).

It seems – although Berlusconi has denied it – that he put this cunning plan to Ciampi. Ciampi evidently said No – or possibly You want to do what? – so it seems that Alex’s fears won’t be realised. The President can and does refuse to sign laws which he regards as unconstitutional; passing a decreto which he knew would not gain presidential approval would be a constitutional crisis too far, even for Berlusconi. The sound of Berlusconi’s former allies tiptoeing away has also been noticeable over the last few days – leading members of the ex-Christian Democrat UDC, the ex-neofascist AN and even Berlusconi’s own party Forza Italia have all made comments translating roughly as “Leave it, Silvio, they’re not worth it.” The latest word from Prodi: “There’s nothing to worry about, we can be calm.” (Although ‘calm’ doesn’t quite capture it – the word he used is sereni. Prodi does a good ‘serene’.)

Formally, the new government has to be appointed by the President. Ciampi’s term ends on the 18th of May, and he’s said that he wants his successor to do the job. In theory, it could be weeks before anything is decided – but in practice it doesn’t look as if anyone but Berlusconi has the stomach for it. Unless the schede contestate do turn out to give him a majority – or reduce Prodi’s majority to such small proportions that a broader recount becomes inevitable – I can’t see Berlusconi doing anything but concede, perhaps after another few days of sulking and pouting. But don’t count on too much international pressure: Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel have congratulated Prodi on his victory, but Bush is “awaiting final results” [sic] and Blair’s saying nothing. Prodi thinks he’s won; Lorenzo Cesa of UDC thinks Prodi’s won (“checking contested ballots is a normal procedure, it won’t change the outcome”); and Roberto Maroni of the Lega Nord is certain of it (“the Left has won; not only do they have the right to govern, they have the duty to govern”). But Berlusconi’s still hoping that something will turn up, and Blair thinks it’s worth waiting just a bit longer. Classy.

PS Berlusconi, 11th April: “The result has got to change: there’s been cheating [brogli] all over the place.”

Carlo Giovanardi (UDC), 13th April: “Nobody’s ever mentioned cheating [brogli]; all we’re saying is that there are irregularities in the count.”

Update 14th April

Those contested ballot papers? It’s emerged this morning – three full days after the count – that there never were 43,000 schede contestate. Or rather, there were 43,000 schede contestate, but some of them were dealt with satisfactorily at the time and had thus been included in the count all along. And when I say ‘some’ I mean ‘most’. The number of schede contestate which were there to be recounted has now been revised downward from 43,028 to 2,131 – in an election with a majority of 25,726.

In other words, the recount has been a complete waste of time. Still, it bought Berlusconi three more days as Prime Minister.

With the last plausible reason for refusing to admit defeat out of the window, things are starting to get a bit Downfall. Berlusconi is now demanding that Ciampi agrees to a decreto ordering a full recount. If Ciampi doesn’t agree, Berlusconi insists on being able to nominate the next President from the ranks of Forza Italia; if the Left don’t agree to that, he promises stalemate in the Senate, where the two coalitions are evenly matched (“With those numbers, nothing gets through without us.”) The only problem with this doomsday scenario is that ‘those numbers’ don’t only consist of Forza Italia: the UDC are already looking towards what la Repubblica describes as the promised land of a de-Berlusconified centre-right, while the Lega Nord is out for whatever it can get from whoever it can get it from. In the mean time Berlusconi is attempting to bend reality with the force of his mighty chutzpah: this evening he said that he was entirely ready to carry on as Prime Minister, and hoped to do so once the provisional results had been replaced with definitive figures. Setting aside the fact that everyone from Angela Merkel to Roberto Maroni (which is quite a range) believes that these are the definitive figures, Berlusconi’s effectively saying that he’s not moving until after a recount – but for there to be a recount would require a decreto, which would require Ciampi to agree, which isn’t going to happen.

It looks very much as if he’s trying to make so much trouble that the Left buys him off by offering the Presidency to somebody from Forza Italia – or even (a truly ghastly thought) to Berlusconi himself. But he’s got no cards left to play, bluster apart. (The former Tangentopoli magistrate Antonio di Pietro had a nice line today: we should “leave Berlusconi to his howling [ai suoi ululati]”.) Taking the long view, it looks as if the Berlusconi period is drawing to a close; Prodi only needs to remain ‘serene’ and hold his nerve. (And, perhaps, look up some bailiffs.)

Update 16th April

So, OK, the results were solid, there isn’t going to be a recount and the votes of a regionalist party allied to Prodi’s Unione aren’t going to be discounted (a recent invention from Roberto Calderoli of Lega Nord, whose colleague Maroni was an early member of the “let it go, Silvio” camp; my suspicion is that Umberto Bossi, the head of Lega Nord and a close personal ally of Berlusconi in the past, remained loyal to the capo and has since called the troops into line). What we need now is to recognise that nobody’s won – the Left can’t possibly hope to govern Italy against the wishes of half of the country – and form a government of national unity. That, at least, was yesterday’s line, as represented by a letter from Berlusconi published in the Corriere della Sera. I’d say that Berlusconi’s attempts to cling to power are shameless, but I don’t think the word’s strong enough. Certainly he doesn’t seem to register the idea that “his people” can be represented by anyone but him – or that there are any Italians who aren’t “his”, apart from the hated Communists.

There was a ray of hope this morning (appropriately enough), in the form of an extraordinarily petulant and grudging statement from Giulio Tremonti, former Minister for the Economy and a close Berlusconi ally. If they don’t want a government of national unity, Tremonti said in so many words, to hell with them – if they want opposition, we’ll give them opposition. Even Berlusconi (currently sulking in Sardinia) has started talking about a firm and rigorous opposition with no concessions to anyone – which is, of course, dependent on Berlusconi formally acknowledging that he is in the opposition. I’m not holding my breath – I’m afraid this one could drag on for some time yet.

Update 19th April

Berlusconi’s going to concede defeat, tomorrow or possibly even today. I say this because, in private – or in that weird, gossipy, deniable semi-private in which a lot of Italian political conversations seem to take place – he’s already started to spread the blame. It’s Calderoli’s fault – if he hadn’t been a shithead about it the Lombard autonomists who went with Prodi would have stayed with us, and we’d have won. Or else it was Tremaglia (who organised the vote for Italians abroad, on the mistaken understanding that most of them would go to Berlusconi) – there were four separate Forza Italia lists in Antarctica, what was that about? Or maybe it was our fault, Forza Italia’s fault – the kids on our lists, they’re good kids, keen as you like, but at the end of the day they’re still kids. None of it, of course, is Berlusconi’s fault – but if we were waiting for that thought to cross his mind we really would have to be patient. (Forza Italia took 29.7% of the vote in 2001, out of a total of 50% for the right-wing alliance; this time round FI took 23.7%, out of a total of 49.7%.)

Another update, also 19th April

Today the Corte di Cassazione ruled on the election results. ‘Corte di Cassazione’ is not easy to translate – one dictionary I’ve seen suggested ‘Court of Cassation’ – but its position in the Italian legal system is fairly clear: it’s at the top. The Corte is the ultimate judicial authority on matters legal and constitutional. The Italian legal system is very big on appeal courts (which is one reason why Berlusconi’s stayed out of prison all this time), and the Corte is in a sense the ultimate appeal court. Unlike other appeal courts, though, the Corte di Cassazione can only be invoked on matters of constitutional significance. If the Corte di Cassazione is ruling on it, it matters; if the Corte has ruled on it, the ruling stays ruled.

This evening the Corte di Cassazione ruled on the election result. They ruled, specifically, that the Unione had won, with an overall majority of 24,755: the recount of schede contestate had reduced it by a total of 469. They also ruled that it had not been inappropriate to count the Lombard autonomist vote as part of the Unione vote.

Within half an hour of the announcement, Lorenzo Cesa of the UDC acknowledged the result, wished Prodi well in the interests of the Italian people and promised to work hard to offer its supporters an alternative government.

Within forty minutes of the announcement, Giulio Tremonti of Forza Italia stated that his party did not recognise the result. Berlusconi’s first public response took a bit longer in coming; addressing a group of supporters this evening, he said: “We’ll give them a fight – they’ll have to reckon with us.” Forza Italia is promising to use all the instruments at its disposal to show that the Unione hasn’t in fact won. The prospect of forcing a full recount is receding; they’re now talking about appealing to the agencies which conducted the count, either to carry out a kind of alternative low-level recount of their own or simply to find some irregularity – any irregularity – in the conduct of the vote. In this increasingly shabby and desperate pursuit Berlusconi is backed by the Lega Nord (Calderoli: “the reality is that the Casa delle Libertà took more votes”) but not by the UDC; we’ve yet to hear from Alleanza Nazionale.

I confess, I thought a Corte di Cassazione ruling would be the end of it. Perhaps it will; tomorrow we should find out whether Berlusconi has any shame at all. Failing that, the 25th of April is a national holiday, the anniversary of Liberation. I think it’ll be a big one this year.

Update 24th April

Well, it’s over: the leaders of the Unione have gone back to squabbling over who’s going to line up with whom and who’s going to get which job. Berlusconi still hasn’t formally conceded, but everyone else is working round him. To date, Berlusconi’s fullest statement on the election result has been to the effect that Prodi’s government will be against the interests of the country, so he (Berlusconi) cannot be expected to congratulate him; the Right will stop the government getting anything important through, and will be back in power before too long; the election victory will always be overshadowed by the failure to recount all spoiled ballot papers; and, if you put the votes for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies together, that the Right actually got more votes than the Left, so that he, Berlusconi, actually won a moral victory. Gracious as ever, then. Like Robert, I find this all a bit extreme even for Berlusconi; is he afraid that his shadier friends are going to call in their markers and he won’t be in a position to pay up? Or did somebody bet him ten grand, before the election, that he’d be congratulating Prodi by the end of April?

Nothing in Berlusconi’s record as Prime Minister leaves a worse taste than the manner of his leaving. Above all, there’s the unpleasant feeling that we’ve been had. For people who take politics seriously – which includes most of the Italian Left and at least some of the Right – Berlusconi’s post-election grandstanding was seriously alarming:

Never before [in a Western democracy] has the defeated candidate rejected the verdict of the ballot box even after the highest court in the land has given its ruling. The message from the current Prime Minister to ‘his’ half of the country verges on an invitation to insurrection. Objectively it’s the language of a coup. Let’s try taking it literally. If the electoral result has been overturned with the complicity of the Corte di Cassazione, then centre-right voters are entitled to any and every reaction to such a gigantic abuse of power – including kicking out the government by means other than voting.

But – the same piece continues –

Luckily nobody takes what Silvio Berlusconi says literally, not even his own voters. His civil war is a game, albeit a sinister game; his threat of a coup is out of a comic opera; the ‘stolen victory’ is just the final fable of the Berlusconi era; the shift towards subversion was only the tactic of a day.

The bad news is that Forza Italia’s voters (and the Lega’s) probably understood all this a lot better than we did: Berlusconi’s populism, like Bossi’s before him, is all about making exorbitant gestures and unreasonable demands, holding out for impossible or manifestly unfair objectives and seeing how much you can get away with. The good news is that it looks as if the Italian Left is starting to catch on. Prodi has proposed that tomorrow’s Festa della Liberazione should be dedicated to the Italian Constitution – and against the ‘devolution’ reforms which were proposed by the Lega and approved by the outgoing Berlusconi government. It’s a deeply divisive move, which has the great merit of drawing the dividing line some way to the Right of the Unione.

With this – and with the extraordinary move of backing Bertinotti for the Presidency of the Camera over d’Alema – Prodi is already showing himself to be a bold as well as a shrewd operator. Don’t get me wrong, as a socialist I don’t hold out much hope for a Prodi government – any hope, to be more precise. But after the last five years there’s a sizeable cleaning-up operation needed in the Italian political system, and for that it does begin to look as if Prodi is our man.


  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 19 April 2006 at 22:01 | Permalink | Reply

    Is it just me, or is the fact that the UK press appears not to have noticed that Blair congratulated Prodi on the 13th something to worry about?

  2. Phil
    Posted 19 April 2006 at 22:32 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t know, I’ve got a nasty feeling he didn’t – one report I saw said that he’d had a long and friendly conversation with Prodi, but not that he’d actually congratulated him.

  3. Rob Jubb
    Posted 20 April 2006 at 09:18 | Permalink | Reply

    Jesus fucking Christ. Berlusconi must be terrified of doing time. I mean, I knew he was low, but this brazen? Fuck me.

  4. Alex
    Posted 20 April 2006 at 09:21 | Permalink | Reply

    I suspect a key motivation for all this shit is simply to buy time for document destruction.

  5. Rob Jubb
    Posted 21 April 2006 at 10:02 | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve actually begun to wonder whether Berlusconi’s really frightened of doing hard time, or something a little more, well, abrupt. He didn’t go down last time he was out of power, so you have to ask why he’s so desperate to cling to the trappings of office. Probably it’s just stalling, but it’s so shameless.

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