Silvio Berlusconi's greatest domestic ally is his inept opposition.
- By James WalstonJames Walston is professor of international relations at the American University of Rome and blogs on Italian politics.
ROME—The latest revelations of Silvio Berlusconi’s friendship with an underage belly dancer named Ruby — and her alleged participation in erotic “bunga bunga” parties at his home — have finally moved the Italian prime minister’s government to what seems like the brink of collapse. In most countries, the opposition would be rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of an early election triggered by sex scandals, intraparty sniping, and persistent economic problems. In Italy, however, there is no government in waiting. Berlusconi has set an astoundingly low bar for a chief executive, but no one else seems capable of clearing it.
Not for the first time, Berlusconi’s career should be over. With four members of government having resigned this week and 40 deputies having withdrawn their support, Berlusconi has effectively lost his majority in the lower house of Parliament. The very public row with Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of his People of Freedom party, has shown that the center-right is deeply split. And he has few friends left elsewhere in the country: He now takes flak not only from labor unions, but from employers, who had formerly been his strongest supporters. The dire state of the economy — with meager growth of only 0.2 percent in the third quarter — has pushed Berlusconi’s approval ratings all the way down to 32 percent. This week, Sergio Marchionne, chief of Fiat, Italy’s biggest corporation, curtly dismissed the government as incompetent, saying simply, “These are not serious people.” Even Berlusconi’s old standby, the Catholic Church, has confronted the prime minister’s personal life with a combination of pointed silence from the Vatican and stern criticism from some Catholic newspapers.
But far from preparing for an election victory, the center-left opposition seems incapable of even mounting a coherent campaign. Polls show that a hypothetical center-left coalition has a slight edge on the sitting government, but the 25 percent approval ratings for the main center-left opposition Democratic Party (PD) are as low as Berlusconi’s own. Italy’s center-left seems intent on giving lie to the old joke that Berlusconi’s best friend is his opposition. It’s a punch line that evokes bitter laughter among Italians who know enough to worry about the health of their democracy.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. It was just three years ago that Walter Veltroni founded the PD, presenting himself as a well-meaning reformer, a Mr. Nice Guy who would capture the moderate left and create a new majority in the country. But however good his intentions, he proved a poor political strategist. Indeed, Veltroni effectively discredited his own party shortly after founding it by eroding the legitimacy of the sitting center-left prime minister, Romano Prodi, and contributing to the subsequent downfall of his government.
The year 2008 was even worse. First, Veltroni’s declaration that the PD would run in the national election without any coalition partners contributed to the Communists and Socialists not winning any parliamentary seats for the first time since World War II. Then, two weeks later, his candidate for mayor of Rome lost the capital city to the far-right candidate Gianni Alemanno. No wonder Italy’s populist conservatives have taken to jokingly calling for the pope to promptly make Veltroni a saint.
Veltroni continued undeterred. Earlier this year, now at the edges of the party leadership, he launched an appeal for a leader from outside the party, implicitly undermining the present party secretary, Pierluigi Bersani, who happens to be politically close to another former leader and Veltroni’s archrival, Massimo D’Alema. (The rivalry between Veltroni and D’Alema has been going on since the two men were in high school.) Veltroni withdrew the suggestion, but the damage was done.
Winning elections requires three components: leadership, organization, and an appealing political program. Strength in one area can make up for weakness in the other two, but the Italian center-left is weak in all three. It seems unlikely it will resolve the leadership question in time if early elections are held in March, as now seems probable.
For the moment, Nichi Vendola, the popular left-wing president of the Apulia regional government, seems like the most likely candidate: Vendola earned 48 percent in a national opinion poll, more than any other candidate, across the entire political spectrum. An election showdown between Berlusconi and Vendola, who is openly gay, could serve as a popular referendum on Berlusconi’s recent remark that it was “better to be passionate about young women than to be gay.” But it’s by no means clear that Catholic Italy is ready for a gay prime minister.
The PD’s political program is another potential liability. The PD has frequently fudged issues hoping to make political capital, especially amid the never-ending debates over Berlusconi’s immunity from criminal prosecution. Recently, in a crucial judiciary election, the PD neglected to fight for one of the country’s many distinguished and independent lawyers and settled instead for someone who had helped draft one of the bills that shields Berlusconi with immunity. After the election, he predictably began working with the center-right members of the judiciary. Every time PD leaders have tried to compromise, they’ve ended up looking like unprincipled machine politicians and have suffered accordingly.
Fortunately, the PD does still have access to some political organization. Almost 20 years after the demise of the Italian Communist Party, the PD still relies on the same base to mobilize supporters. But its get-out-the-vote machinery is hopelessly out of date; the party needs to do a better job of using the possibilities afforded by online social networks.
But even a revived opposition may not be enough. Berlusconi is a discredited figure for many, both personally and politically, but he still commands immense power and resources. He is also a proven fighter who loves election campaigns and is very good at waging them. The center-left and the PD as its core need much more than sex scandals to beat Berlusconi, and even if they did, it is not at all clear what they would do with the victory. And that is the real danger for Italy.