Calvinball Comes to Italy
The people have failed us. It is time to elect a new people!Silvio Berlusconi, who bashes the communists whenever given the chance, despite the fact that there are very few these days in Italy—has found his inspiration in this ironic advice from the German playwright. If the government can no longer trust the people to cast their vote to return them to power, then it’s time to change the elections law to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. At six months out from national legislative elections, this seems to be the preferred game plan of the Italian Prime Minister.
It so happens that the prospects for Il Cavaliere are not good. Since being returned to office in 2001, Silvio Berlusconi has lost practically every election since then: European, regional and local. Although survey results do not correspond to the vote -–we’ve just seen that validated again in Germany–- opinion polls put the House of Freedoms, his center-right coalition, at 12 to 14 points behind The Union, the centrist alliance of leftists and small communist parties.
The economic situation in Italy is deplorable and the persistence of deficits -- for the fourth consecutive year the budget deficit will surpass the threshhold barrier of 3 per cent GNP-- and the multiplication of scandals --the most recent involves Antonio Fazio, Chairman of the Italian Central Bank, once a haven of virtue in a sea of instability and corruption--, do no augur well for Silvio Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia (Go Italy!), or his political allies, the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), the Lega Nord (Northern League) and the right-wing Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats).
The ruse is to return to a proportional electoral system with a handicap for the smaller parties and a bonus allotted to the coalition with the least number of political parties. Effectively, this puts The Union at a greater disadvantage than House of Freedoms.
Another provision is crafted to make life difficult for opposition leader Romano Prodi. Even if one raised an eyebrow at his controversial departure to head the European Commission, Prodi remains a formidable adversary for Silvio Berlusconi. According to the draft legislation, the lists of candidates presented to voters for election must be drawn up by the political parties. In other words, in order to lead the opposition into battle, Romano Prodi, who owes his popularity to remaining aloof from politics, either has to form his own political party or join one of the parties within The Union.
Using what might be termed an electoral putsch, the coalition that currently holds power hopes to win the elections which it must reluctantly call or at least to limit the victory of their political adversaries on the left. Should this transpire, it has set a ceiling of 340 seats to go the victorious coalition.
This is not the first time that Silvio Berlusconi has fiddled with the democratic rules of the games. Since he views overt violation of the law as either dishonest or dangerous, he prefers to use his parliamentary majority to change the law in his favor-–including retroactivity if necessary. He has already revised the law to deal with conflicts of interest between his position as head of government and his private affairs, decriminalizing falsified balance sheets and shortening jail time for fiscal fraud.
Il Cavaliere is now revising the electoral rules of the game because they now apppear unfavorable to him after he has enjoyed profit and a false sense of glory in a majority system (which has a dash of proportionality) adopted by popular referendum in the 1990’s and was meant to serve as the basis of what is called the Second Republic. The First Republic was marred with government instability, the reign of political parties, and trasformismo—the passage of miniscule parties from the majority to the opposition and vice-versa following the ambitions of their leaders and without the slightest input from the voters. The introduction of majority rule has not healed all the ills of Italian democracy but at least it has fostered a certain amount of government stability. Silvio Berlusconi prides himself on being the first Italian Premier in decades to have held on to an entire legislature. It also led to the formation of two big coalitions, center-right and center-left, which alternate at the helm of government.
The allies of Silvio Berlusconi have been hesitant to support reform of the elections law. Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini’s party, the National Alliance, is fearful of being marginalized by a centrist coalition. The most enthusiastic supporters of reform are the right-wing Christian Democrats, led by Assembly Speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini. Proportionality gives them the hope of reunification with their estranged brethren on the Left and the possibility of reemerging as a grand Demo-Christian force, the worthy successor to the party which ran every government in the First Republic. The trap which Silvio Berlusconi had set for the Left is likely to snap shut on him. But the prestige of Italy will emerged diminished from his institutional chicanery.
Daniel Vernet in LE MONDE | 11.10.05 | Silvio Berlusconi, "Electoral Putschist".