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Italian Politics – An Overview of the Current Situation

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Trying to understand just what is going on in the convoluted, confusing world of Italian politics is no easy task for the casual observer. Here’s an overview of the current situation along with some of the names of politicians coming up in Italy’s press, plus who they are and what they do.

As you may be aware, after inconclusive election results in February and a failed attempt to elect a new president for Italy – which resulted in previous President Giorgio Napolitano reluctantly accepting a second term – Italy ended up with an unholy grand coalition government.

Made up of supposed arch political rivals, the Berlusconi led PdL center-right party and the center-left PD party, the current government is proving to be a fragile affair. Keeping the government afloat is the fact that it is not doing much. Attempts to do anything constructive tend to result in bouts of bickering which threaten to bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

Berlusconi’s Stranglehold

Some would argue that Silvio Berlusconi is still pulling all the strings in Italian politics and the recent suspension of  the work of Italy’s parliament after the date – 30 July, 2013 –  for a Berlusconi appeal hearing was set demonstrated the virtual strangle-hold Berlusconi still has on Italy. Italy’s future does seem to be tied to Berlusconi’s own personal future.

The July appeal, which will be the definitive hearing in the Mediaset tax fraud case, is causing great controversy because if Silvio Berlusconi’s guilt is confirmed, as it already has been by two lower courts, Berlusconi, aside from ending up with a criminal conviction, may well end up with a 5 year ban from holding public office. If this happens, and it is a big if, as the final word on banning Berlusconi from politics will come from Italy’s parliament, it will most probably mean the end of Berlusconi’s political career. Moreover, it will probably spell the end of his PdL political party which appears to be unable to function without its charismatic and controversial leader.

Save Silvio, Save his Party

Saving Berlusconi will mean saving his party and this is why so much rides on the hearing of the 30 July. However the final hearing may not take place on the 30 July and may not, as Berlusconi seems to believe, confirm the guilt of the tanned media magnate. Berlusconi, and his supporters, appear to believe that the case is a politically motivated attempt to remove Berlusconi from politics.

Just another case of Tax Evasion

Judges and prosecutors, on the other hand, believe the case is no more than one involving someone who has broken tax laws. No more no less. For some reason though, Berlusconi feels he should be immune from prosecution because lots of people voted for him. Anyway, despite the claims from the Berlusconi side, what is more worrying is that Berlusconi could bring down the current government if he is convicted. His coalition partners are aware of this and appear to be working to prevent this from happening.

PD and PdL in Cahoots

It is suspected by the Beppe Grillo 5 Star Movement and a few others that the Berlusconi PdL is in cahoots with their coalition partners, the Pd.

Why would the two formerly arch rivals which sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum be in cahoots? Quite simple really. Because taking Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics would herald something of a revolution and may spark a much needed clean up within Italy’s political system.

Italy’s two mainstream political parties form part of the so-called ‘caste’ which is more or less a self-preservation society made up of politicians who do politics not for the good of Italy, but for their own personal benefit, or that is the impression of many in Italy.

Incidentally, the emergence of Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement is a reaction to the ‘caste’ and its political games which tend to do little more than keep certain people in lucrative well-paid posts at the expense of Italy’s population’s future.

The Renzi Factor

Meanwhile, and adding to the mess, the PD party is in the midst of a leadership struggle.

One Matteo Renzi, presently the Mayor of Florence, wants to clean up the PD party and turn it into something more respectable. Others, including long time center-left power broker Massimo D’Alema are working hard behind the scenes to keep Renzi at bay. Massimo D’Alema is to the PD what Berlusconi is to the PdL, and D’Alema is not 100% unfriendly to Berlusconi either.

One strategy to keep Renzi at a distance has been to appoint an interim party secretary, someone called Guglielmo Epifani, a former union man and political newbie. Epifani was elected with an 85.8% majority by PD party people to become secretary in May this year after his predecessor, Pier Luigi Bersani went.

Instead of opting to select a completely new party secretary, Epifani was chosen to keep the party ticking over until a new secretary is elected at a party congress, the date of which has yet to be decided. The indecision over the date of the congress relates to the fear that Renzi will probably win and kick many of the old guard out of the PD party.

Former secretary Bersani more or less fluffed Italy’s February elections which produced three winners. The three winners were Berlusconi’s PdL party, the then Bersani led PD party and Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement.

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Initially, Italy’s President Napolitano invited Bersani to attempt to form a government, but Bersani was unable to. This led to his resignation and to the formation of the PD-PdL coalition.

Beppe Grillo maintained, as he had done throughout the election campaign, that he did not want his movement to ally with any of the current political parties and was not invited by Bersani to form a coalition anyway, not that Grillo would have done unless all his party’s policy demands had been met.

The Left-Right Coalition

To resolve the impasse created by the February elections, the PD formed a coalition with the PdL, much to the annoyance of grass roots PD party supporters who consider the PdL the enemy. In Beppe Grillo’s opinion, the PdL and the PD have been cooperating behind the scenes for many years and have been working keep themselves in control of Italian politics. Grillo’s supporters believe this too. By combining forces to form the PD-PdL government, Beppe Grillo’s suspicions have been confirmed.

PD Supports Saving Berlusconi

Now, it is looking as if the PD is prepared to keep Silvio Berlusconi’s political career afloat. It is not entirely clear why this should be the case, but to observers it looks as if the Pd and PdL are doing all they can to preserve the ‘caste’ system. This, as one might imagine, is something that has not escaped the attention of Beppe Grillo who spends a lot of time vociferously drawing attention to the situation.

Letta Going Nowhere

In the midst of all the chaos, the current government, led by one Gianni Letta, a Pd party number two, is going nowhere fast. Lots of talking is going on, but very little real progress is being made. Economically, Italy is not in a good state of health, so the dithering over political issues is not doing Italy any good at all.

The Berlusconi tax fraud court case issue has brought the government to a virtual standstill, as have requests from Berlusconi and his party to dump an unpopular property tax known as the IMU. Berlusconi and his party are insisting the IMU property tax be dropped on first homes though Italy cannot afford to lose the €4 billion in income this tax raises.

Another mainstay of the PdL’s demands is to put an end to a proposed VAT increase.

The PdL is digging its heels in over these two issues and more or less refusing to cooperate on anything else until the IMU tax goes and VAT is not increased. If it does not, the Letta led coalition government will most probably fall.

For now, both the IMU tax and the VAT rise have been put on hold, though not cancelled completely.

Other much needed reforms have yet to materialise.

Electoral Reform

Lurking in the background is the prospect of electoral law reforms which should, if drawn up properly, put an end to inconclusive elections. Work on reforms has not really started yet, or if it has, it has not got far enough to make anything public. Both the PD and PdL parties will work to ensure electoral reforms allow them to exist more or less as they are. This, of course, means the reforms are unlikely to achieve much.

If electoral reforms are not forthcoming, Italy will most likely end up with yet another non-government and its economy will continue to nose dive.

Election Time?

If Berlusconi’s guilt is confirmed, and no pardon is forthcoming – yes, this is something being considered apparently, or so believes Berlusconi friendly paper Libero, then although Berlusconi says personally he’ll continue to support the Letta government, it is likely Italy’s government will topple or the situation will become so untenable, Italy’s president will intervene and recommend an election date is named. President Napolitano could, theoretically, form another technocrat government in the interim.

Yes, it’s a mess. Removing Berlusconi from Italian politics may help resolve the problems and allow some form of rebirth within Italy’s political system. In Italy, politics seems to be more prone to the whims of powerful individuals than to the wishes of the nation’s people. Democracy is little more than a carefully crafted illusion in Italy, as falling voter numbers tend to confirm.

At present, government in Italy is much more tightly linked to the personal problems of Silvio Berlusconi and to keeping the political caste in tact than to the problems Italy’s economy is facing.

Is Italy going in the right direction? No. In fact, Italy is drifting in the midst of a growing storm.

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