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Is Silvio Berlusconi on His Way Out?


The question on lips around the world is whether Silvio Berlusconi will stay or will go. Everybody, and I mean everybody, which means Italians and those from beyond Italy’s shores, is uncertain. In this post I’ve listed a series of factors at play, each of which may, or may not, contribute to Berlusconi’s downfall or longevity.  As you will discover, people have good reason to be uncertain, as the matter is by no means straightforward.

The latest Ruby Gate Bunga Bunga affair was, seemingly, the final straw for Berlusconi.  Why ‘seemingly’?  Quite simple, because the Battle of Berlusconi is by no means over.

On December 14th a no-confidence motion will be brought against Berlusconi’s government.  The subsequent vote may, or may not, bring down Berlusconi and his government.  At present, it is safe to assume that Berlusconi will not be voted out from Italy’s upper house – the Senate, as he still holds the majority there.  In Italy’s lower house though, the situation is far from clear.  On paper, and as a result of the defection of Gianfranco Fini and his followers, Berlusconi does not hold the majority in Italy’s lower house.  However if Fini continues to support Berlusconi, which is something he has already done, then Berlusconi continues to hold Italy’s reins.

Berlusconi - Here today, gone tomorrow?

Fini, though, has made it clear that he wants Berlusconi to change course, and that if this does not happen, he and his faction will vote against the government.  This too has already occurred, and in Italy’s lower house the Berlusconi government has been beaten on several issues.  These signs of weakness have increased background noise in Italy, and speculation is growing that a crisis is in the offing, but Berlusconi is having none of it.  He has dug in his heels, and in so doing, is making it very difficult to predict which way the wind will blow.

There are numerous factors at play in the Berlusconi saga. Couple them with the speed at which things are moving, and ‘uncertainly‘ becomes the key word.  What are these factors?  I’ll attempt to list a few which have caught my attention, but my list is not exhaustive, and the evolution of the situation is very much ongoing.  Anyway, here is a list of eleven factors, the blowback from which, may, or may not, bring down Italy’s charismatic leader.

1. The Berlusconi Factor

As already mentioned, first and foremost, Berlusconi has indicated that he is not going to go quietly.  Far from it, he’s fighting his ground and his skill as political combatant is not to be underestimated.  Everybody is well aware of this, and Berlusconi is employing his media might to give him a public helping hand.

To complicate matters, and to wrong foot his opponents, Berlusconi has indicated that he would be prepared to lead Italy into two elections – in that it is probable that while he may lose the no-confidence vote in Italy’s lower house, he may well win in the upper house.  If this happens, then on paper, Italy could face elections solely for its lower house of parliament, and if Berlusconi should win, he will be back.  On the other hand, if Berlusconi loses, Italy will have an upper house in the hands of one group and a lower house in the hands of another, opposing, group.  Net result: stalemate, followed by more general elections.  Not good for Italy.

2. The Media Factor

Berlusconi still controls most of Italy’s media, including that most powerful of media – television.  He can use his weapons of mass distraction to generate votes.  We can also be sure that spin doctors will be ensuring that on the run up to the confidence vote, Berlusconi’s image will be brushed up a little.  These ‘doctors’ have their work cut out for them – enter the Dell’Utri factor.

3. The Dell’Utri factor

Marcello Dell’Utri is a close associate of Silvio Berlusconi who has been found guilty of association with the mafia.  So far, Dell’Utri’s guilt has been confirmed by two courts – the next stop, and the final one for Dell’Utri, is Italy’s Court of Cassation.  If Dell’Utri loses the Cassation hearing, he will end up in prison, or so said Italian Minister Roberto Maroni on Sunday – but he did use the word ‘probably’ – Italy is an uncertain nation.

An appeal court decision which came out last week confirmed Dell’Utri’s guilt, and the judgement stated that Dell’Utri had been acting as a go-between for Berlusconi and the mafia.  According to the appeal court judgement, agreements between the mafia and Italy’s current leader only related to Berlusconi’s personal situation – and involved the payment of protection money, and business dealings.  It seems that one of Berlusconi’s businesses was laundering mafia money.

The court found that electoral manipulation had not been part of the Berlusconi-Dell’Utri-mafia triangle.   This is strange in a respect, as Berlusconi’s former Forza Italia party has always enjoyed high levels of support from Sicily.  It is also known that the mafia is very persuasive at election time.  Some may be wondering whether certain judges in the Dell’Utri trial have been got at.  The Mills case and other cases involving Berlusconi, such as the Mondadori and SME cases, appear to indicate that Berlusconi is suspected of attempting to buy favourable court decisions.  Whether this has happened in the Dell’Utri case, remains to be seem.  Dell’Utri, who is still a senator has made a few appearances on television recently, and appears to be rather confident.  OK, so the decision is not favourable, but the picture being painted is that of Berlusconi mafia victim, not mafia partner.

What’s this got to do with Berlusconi surviving?  A fair amount, in that someone who has being making payments to a criminal organisation should perhaps not be a prime minister – as he has been compromised.  Others may agree, and this could influence the result of the no-confidence vote against Berlusconi.  Then again, there is positive political capital to be made of the ‘Berlusconi mafia victim’ angle, and such capital could help keep Berlusconi in the top spot.

Still, if the worst comes to the worst for Berlusconi and he is invited to go to court to explain his relationship with Dell’Utri, or if yet another scandal breaks (one is brewing, but seems to have gone silent for the moment), then Berlusconi can keep himself out of court with the convenient legitimate impediment law.  By keeping himself from having to answer awkward questions, Berlusconi can keep in favour with Italy’s voters, and, perhaps, survive the no confidence motion.  But, and it is a big but, this law may be declared unconstitutional.  Next factor, step this way, please.

4. The Legitimate Impediment Factor

On the very same day as Berlusconi’s government will face a confidence vote – December 14th, Italy’s consitutional court is due to reach a decision as to whether the law which grants the legitimate impediment right to Silvio Berlusconi is constitutional.

The legitimate impediment law allows Silvio Berlusconi, and others, to avoid going to court hearings they’ve been ordered to attend if they have official engagements.  It is not entirely clear to me whether the decision on legitimate impediment will come out prior to the no-confidence vote.

If Italy’s constitutional court manages to make its decision public before the no-confidence vote, and the decision states that the legitimate impediment law is unconstitutional, then this could have an effect on the no-confidence vote, and a negative effect on Silvio Berlusconi’s future, possibly.  Alternatively, if the legitimate impediment right is confirmed as being constitutional, then Berlusconi’s allies, and others, may feel more disposed towards voting against the no-confidence motion.  In this scenario, Berlusconi will continue to be Italy’s premier.

Note and 14th January 2011 Update

Note that the decision on the validity of the legitimate impediment law was postponed until after the no-confidence vote – which Berlusconi won. Indeed, a decision was reached on the legitimate impediment issue yesterday  – the 13th January 2011 and the law was upheld, but with certain modifications which will make it more difficult, though not impossible for Berlusconi to keep himself from having to appear in court. The most significant change is that judges presiding over cases involving Berlusconi will be able to decide whether or not Italy’s premier has official duties which keep him from appearing in court. There is also a reputedly exhaustive list of the circumstances which constitute legitimate impediments – and this will act as a guide for judges.

In addition to the list, further leeway for the success of legitimate impediment claims is provided by wording stating that activities which support official duties and engagements, both prior to and after certain events, can also be used to justify a non-appearance in court by Berlusconi. However, in the event the legitimate impediment right is granted, the hearing can only be delayed for six months.

Berlusconi is reportedly moderately pleased with the decision of Italy’s constitutional court. This is something of a surprise as usually Berlusconi accuses Italy’s judges of conspiring to bring him down.

Berlusconi‘s position has been weakened slightly by this decision, and his government remains unstable. It continues to uncertain how long his government will last.

End of update

5. The Finanziaria Factor

In the interest of shoring up Italy’s somewhat shaky economy, Italy’s politicians have agreed not to attempt to topple Berlusconi until a crucial finance act has been passed.  If this act is not passed and elections are called, then Italy risks feeling the full force of the global economic crisis and nobody wants this.  To an extent, keeping Berlusconi in place for the moment is good for Italy.

6. The Fini Factor

Berlusconi’s former number two, and now sworn policial enemy, Gianfranco Fini is wavering with regard to the no-confidence motion.

One day Fini says his soon-to-become-a-political-party faction will vote against the no-confidence vote, other days he says he and his minions will not.

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It is probable that Fini is playing for time, in that he still cannot dent Berlusconi’s majority in Italy’s upper house  – the Senate.  Once Fini is confident he can swing things in both houses, his position might become more stable; and clearer. For the moment, it is unclear as to whether Fini will or won’t bring down Berlusconi.

7. The Opposition Factor

Left-wing opposition to Silvio Berlusconi is fragmented.  There are in fact myriads of fragments, and there is no sign of any magnet strong enough to draw all the ‘iron filings’ together.  Without homogeneity, there is no way Italy’s left will be able to bring down Berlusconi.  Of course Berlusconi knows this full well, and is working hard to attract those who are hovering in no-man’s land over to his side.

To knock Berlusconi off his perch the left-wing opposition needs to become friends, at least for a time, with Italy’s anti-Berlusconi right aka Fini and his followers.  This may happen – but it’s uncertain!

8. The Shopping Factor

Yes, ‘shopping’.  Silvio Berlusconi has sent his headhunters out on a shopping spree to round up support.  Some purchases must have been made seeing as Berlusconi has been indicating recently that he does not think he will lose the December 14th no-confidence vote.

What Berlusconi’s boys and girls are doing is offering heaven knows what to whoever they think might board the somewhat water-logged Berlusconi boat. Everyone has his or her price, and some in Italy suspect that money will be changing hands once price levels have been negotiated and agreed.  And Berlusconi is not short of funds.  Promises and guarantees are also being made by the bucket load, one suspects.

There are signs that the Berlusconi boat has cracks both above and below the waterline.  Carfagana represents one of the below the water-line cracks.

9. The Carfagna Factor

Mara Carfagna is Berlusconi’s Minister for Equal Opportunities, and also happens to be one of Italy’s better looking female politicans.  It was suspected that she was one of ‘Berlusconi’s girls’.  Now though, some are beginning to wonder, as Minister Carfagna is not happy with the rough ride she’s been getting within Berlusconi’s government.

After a spat with Mussolini’s granddaughter, Carfagna announced she intended to resign her ministerial post and leave the Berlusconi government on the 15th December – the day after the no-confidence vote.  Berlusconi reportedly passed an hour on the phone trying to convince Carfagna to stay, but despite Italy’s prime lothario’s best attempts, Carfagna still wants to jump ship – or wanted – see the micro-update beneath.

While Carfagna is not a significant loss for Berlusconi, her decision to go must be something of a personal blow – as we understand he was instrumental in getting her the job in the first place.  Berlusconi must have been pretty certain that he could count on her loyalty.  Instead, she is off, and this gives the impression that the Berlusconi ship is sinking.  If Carfagna is thinking of leaving the Berlusconi fold, others may also be having similar thoughts.  Such people might conceivably use the no-confidence vote to bring down Berlusconi, especially if they believe he can no longer help them.

Micro-update: Carfagna is having second thoughts on the resignation front, it seems.

10. The Lega Nord Factor

Berlusconi’s government holds power because it formed a coalition with the Lega Nord – Northern League – party.  If Lega Nord dumps Berlusconi, his government is no more. For the monument, Umberto Bossi appears to be with Berlusconi (actually, Bossi has no real alternative), although he, a little like Fini, is wavering, saying “Go to the country” one day, and, “We’re not going to the county” the next.  Bossi alternates, and is rumoured to hide behind bushes too.  It is as if he suspects things may go rotten, but is not one hundred percent certain what or when.  Bossi’s trying to cover all angles, and seems to be talking to other potential political allies, just in case.  He won’t dump Berlusconi necessarily – but he’s a loose cannon.

Adding to Bossi’s troubles are accusations that Lega Nord local administrations have been penetrated by the mafia.  If this is the case, then the image of Lega Nord will be damaged and this may mean in event of elections that Lega Nord won’t garner enough votes to form a new coalition with Berlusconi – should Berlusconi bounce back, if there are elections. If, if, if…

Micro-update 2: Lega Nord Minister Roberto Maroni, who battles Italy’s mafia in his capacity as interior minister, stated on the Vieni Via Con Me culture show on Monday that while certain local administrations in Italy’s north have been penetrated by the mafia, no Northern League/Lega Nord run administrations are under investigation for signs of mafia interference.  This should help keep Lega Nord voters happy.

11.  The Destituzione Factor

Destituzione‘ is a disciplinary provision under Italian law specifically aimed at public officials who conduct activities which are either against the law, or which cause them to be deemed incompatible with holding public office.

Members of Italy’s opposition have been mooting whether or not the destituzione line can be taken with Berlusconi – primarily in connection with the bunga bunga case which involved all and sundry being invited to Berlusconi’s parties.  There are concerns that Italy’s national security may have been put at risk, or compromised, as a result of the parties; some spy or other, dressed up as a pretty woman (either a genuine woman or a not so genuine one), could have uncovered and revealed sensitive information on Italian affairs.  This is one of the worries the bunga bunga case gave rise to.

Then, there is the possible abuse of power allegation which could be levelled against Berlusconi for the alleged extrication of Bunga Bunga Ruby from the hands of Milan’s police after she had been arrested for suspected theft. Yet another item which could be thrown into the destituzione pot is the allegation that official aircraft were used to transport drugs to you know who’s parties.  The pot does seem to be quite full on the destituzione front.

So far, the destituzione option has not been applied – but it could be used as a form of ‘Sword of Damocles’ to convince Berlusconi to go, or, to have him removed, and this option could even keep him from running in future elections.

If the destituzione scenario becomes reality, then Berlusconi supporters may feel that he will no longer have the power to help them – this may have a bearing on the no-confidence vote.

Here is more information on destituzione – in Italian.

There you have it, a whole list of factors which may, or may not, cause Berlusconi to stand down, possibly, permanently, if factor 11 is called into play. Factor 11 may be employed as a threat to force Berlusconi to go, although he is likely to avoid it like the plague as it would end his political career – in which case he might just resign on ‘health grounds’.

As a matter of interest, March 27th 2011 is when national elections may be held in Italy – if Berlusconi does tumble.

Sorry if I have left you even more uncertain than you were at the start of this marathon 2500+ word post!  Welcome to the wonderful world of Italian politics.

What do you think?

Please feel free to add anything or to correct me.

Image: Presidenza della Repubblica (Presidency of Italian Republic)

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