Tuesday, 26 November 2013

2013 Italian General Election – Italian Politics at a Crossroads?
One-day conference, 17 January 2014, University of Birmingham

Organised with the support of the Political Studies Association, the PSA’s Italian Politics Specialist Group and the Department of Modern Languages, University of Birmingham

Registrations are now open for the conference "2013 Italian General Election: Italian Politics at the Crossroads?".
Attendance to the event is free of charge and refreshments will be provided.
However, places are limited and participants need to register online by Tuesday 10 December

Details of the conference, including the programme for the day and the online registration form, can be found at this link.

For further information about the event, please contact: ipsg.conference@gmail.com

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The PD and the elections for its next leader -- reflections from the other side of the Channel...

Arianna Giovannini and James L. Newell
Seen from here in Britain, the elections to decide the next leader of the PD, due to be held on 8 December, suggest that the party is attempting to undergo a process of profound, but also very difficult, change. Certainly, it has to be said that the British media have not so far given much space to the debate surrounding (s)elections of this type. The reason is simple. On the one hand, newspapers and other media outlets on this side of the Channel often discuss Italian politics in negative terms. They focus on elections without winners and with too many winners; on Berlusconi and his court cases; on scandals and political corruption etc. The election of the next leader of the PD represents a contrast to all of this – an attempt to restructure the PD and the Italian political system more broadly. Probably, therefore, the results will be discussed once they are known; but, reflecting a degree of British cynicism, little space is currently being given to the mechanisms and power games that have been taking shape during the organisational phase preceding the elections.
On the other hand, primaries and “secretaries” (to use the neologism coined by Marco Valbruzzi) are interpreted differently in the United Kingdom. Here, this type of election is used mainly by the Labour Party (the Conservatives have introduced them only recently), but with procedures and aims that are very different as compared with Italy. In particular, they are (especially) closed. In fact only Labour Party members and members of the affiliated trade unions can vote, and the party conference has significant weight in the selection process. For this reason, primaries and “secretaries” are for the most part seen as procedures internal to the party – whose purpose is to give “appropriate weight” to the various political and trade-union stakeholders and which are only partially open to ordinary members. In Italy, by contrast, they have a completely different significance – having been conceived principally as instruments which have become almost necessary in order to (re)legitimise the principles, structures and values of the country’s weak system of representative democracy.  The PD thus uses them as a device for reinforcing its links with the electorate as a whole, and to (attempt to) increase the level of citizens’ trust in politics. The British media then say little about Italy’s primary and “secretary” elections but also about their own, perhaps because, in accordance with traditional guiding principles, they tend to look at other cases from the perspective of their own, without grasping the significant differences of meaning and procedure.
From an academic point of view, however – as the authors are members of a group of die-hards obstinately seeking to understand the Italian political system from a base in the United Kingdom – debate surrounding the elections has given rise to certain reflections worthy of attention.
Seen from Britain, the most striking aspects of the elections are two-fold, one negative, the other positive. The negative aspect concerns what the competition tells us about the depth of the divisions within a party that is attempting (almost desperately) to re-engage with its voters and supporters. As the PD was a party that came into existence as the simple merger of two bureaucratic apparatuses rather than through any real process of organisational or ideological innovation, the dominant coalitions within each of the two parent parties agreed tacitly to share positions of power within what, as a consequence, has always been a highly factionalised entity. In the aftermath of the February general election, internal divisions were exacerbated by the failure to forge any kind of governing alliance with the Five-star Movement; by the failure to act compactly in the election of a new President, and by the consequent formation of the government of larghe intese which Bersani and his supporters had very much opposed, convinced as they were that Berlusconi’s conflict of interests made him and his party inherently illegitimate as contenders for public office. Recently, internal conflict has even led to exchanges of accusations among the leadership candidates concerning artificial inflation of the party enrolments that will help them through the pre-election phase of the leadership contest and provide the ground troops for their campaigns.
More positively, by embracing elections for leadership selection open to the participation of citizens as well as members – thus making it a unique case in Europe – the PD has made a downward concession of power, one that is interpretable from a cross-national perspective as part of a family of changes designed to address the “crisis of party”. It is significant, then, that the last leadership contest, held in October 2009, was a clear success: genuinely competitive, it was able, despite scandals and recent national and European election defeats, to secure the participation of over 3 million voters.
This time, however, the fact that the contest is being held in December and looks like being a foregone conclusion must throw at least a question mark over the likely turnout. In other words it is legitimate to ask whether, in this situation, Italian citizens who are PD members or supporters will be mobilised in large numbers – showing a desire to (re)legitimise the PD and the institutions of representative democracy – or whether they will take refuge behind anti-political sentiments or simple apathy.
One must also wonder about the impact of the likely outcome: Renzi wants a dismantling of the party factions, but also a party that devolves power to local-level leaders. While a less centralised party might make it easier to attract votes from outside the party’s traditional catchment areas, the two aspirations together arguably point in different directions in terms of party cohesion. And while the Florentine mayor mobilises the support of those hoping he will revolutionise the party’s fortunes by an attack on its traditional oligarchies, the latter have already begun to jump on the Renzi bandwagon. Party renewal therefore seems now to be less of a priority than some months ago for a politician who knows that he will need to have all wings of the party united in their support of him if he is to retain the charisma he needs to satisfy his ambition to become Italy’s next prime minister.       
In short, it is difficult when viewed from Britain to disentangle the various knots underlying the debate surrounding the election of the next PD leader. On the one hand, the prospects do not seem especially rosy, a number of issues and problems remaining unresolved. On the other hand, if the PD is able genuinely to overhaul itself, starting with its top leadership groups, and to open itself to influence from below, then these elections for the party secretary could represent an important turning point, and not only for the centre-left. They could signal the first step towards the re-legitimation of the Italian political system in the eyes of its citizens – and, perhaps, also in the eyes of the publics that observe Italian politics from abroad. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Berlusconi’s surrender: the 2 October confidence vote in Italy

James L. Newell

On 2 October, the Letta government won a vote of confidence that seemed considerably to strengthen it following months of uncertainty about its future and the sense that it was highly fragile. The vote had been engineered by Silvio Berlusconi, and the sense of drama associated with it was considerably heighted when, during the preceding debate, the entrepreneur entered the Senate chamber suddenly to announce a humiliating climbdown: he and his followers would oppose the no-confidence motion. Just a few days previously the Government’s survival had been put in doubt by the announcement that ministers belonging to Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (Popolo della Libertà, Pdl) would resign. They had apparently been instructed to withdraw from the Government by the entrepreneur in protest at a 27 September Cabinet decision to postpone discussion of a series of matters in the area of economic and fiscal policy including Value Added Tax. Thereby it became clear that the Government would almost certainly be unable to achieve a promised postponement of the VAT increase decided by the previous Monti government due to come into effect on 1 October.
The VAT issue cited as the reason for the ministers’ resignations was widely regarded as a pretext. Berlusconi claimed that the Government’s decision violated the agreement on which the coalition was based. Prime Minister Enrico Letta replied that the postponement decision had been made necessary by the earlier announcement on the part of Pdl parliamentarians that they would resign en masse out of solidarity with Berlusconi whose future was to be the subject of a vote by the Senate elections committee on 4 October. On that date the committee would decide on whether to recommend to the Senate that it vote in favour of Berlusconi’s expulsion following his 1 August conviction for tax fraud. Letta had argued that the Pdl parliamentarians’ threatened resignation created such uncertainty about the Government’s capacity to pursue its programme that there needed to be clarification, in Parliament, about whether it could carry on. Then, when announcement of the ministers’ resignation came, Letta echoed a view widely shared among media commentators that the gesture had actually been motivated by Berlusconi’s personal interests.
These personal interests arose from the position Berlusconi found himself in following his conviction. He had been caught up in numerous judicial investigations into his business affairs over the years. What made this case different was that for the first time, charges against him had been upheld by the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court. In the past, he had always managed to take advantage of the automatic right of appeal from courts of first instance to the Appeal Court and from there to the Court of Cassation. This had enabled him in some cases to avoid prosecution by exploiting his great wealth and the relative slowness of the Italian judicial process to ensure that proceedings were ‘timed out’ thanks to the statute of limitations. In other cases, he had used his position as Prime Minister to secure the passage of legislation aimed at rendering the work of the judiciary more difficult, or decriminalising the acts of which he was accused. Now, however, he was out of office and faced with charges that he had bought the rights to screen American films through a series of offshore companies that had resold them to each other at inflated prices each time allowing him to evade taxes and pocket the difference. On 26 October 2012 he had been sentenced to four years in prison, a decision upheld by the Appeal Court on 8 May 2013 and by the Court of Cassation on 1 August. In the meantime, the Monti government, driven by deep popular dissatisfaction with standards of probity in public life as well as awareness of the actual costs of office holders’ abuses, had passed the so-called Severino Law. This bans those convicted of crimes carrying a penalty of two years or more from being members of Parliament or holding other offices and renders them ineligible to stand as candidates for such offices for at least six years. In deference to the separation-of-powers principle and in accordance with article 66 of the Constitution which reserves to Parliament the power to determine the eligibility of its members, the Senate itself would have to decide whether Severino applied in Berlusconi’s case.       
Berlusconi presumably calculated that if he succeeded in bringing the Government down he could provoke fresh elections, which might enable him to avoid the consequences of 1 August: though the outcome of a new poll could not be taken for granted, voting intentions data were not discouraging either and his Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, Pd) opponents on the centre left were in trouble. The party’s decision to join Berlusconi in coalition following the inconclusive election outcome in February was deeply unpopular among its supporters. On the other hand, it might suffer most from any government collapse if Berlusconi could frame the event as “a battle against moves by the centre-left to raise taxes as part of [the following] year's budget discussions” (The Guardian, 2013). The risk was that collapse might provoke turmoil in the financial markets, for which Berlusconi himself might be blamed, and bring a decline in the share value of his companies.
And it was presumably the awareness of this risk that led each of the ministers “ordered” to resign, one by one to line up to express their misgivings until it became apparent that the threat to bring the Government down might provoke a major party split. From this it became apparent that, notwithstanding Berlusconi’s stance, the Government would survive the confidence vote anyway. Berlusconi’s dramatic last-minute U-turn was therefore the consequence of an awareness that he no longer had the power and authority to call the shots on the centre right – presumably because his age (77) makes him a rapidly wasting asset. The widely held assumption when the Government had taken office was that it would be weak because it depended on the cooperation of Berlusconi who had the power to withdraw the support of his followers any time he wished. Now that power had been put to the test and found wanting – and this was a dramatic new development in Italian politics: for the first time, Berlusconi, the leader of a “personal party”, created by him and for him, had been forced to bow to the will of his followers. Though his political demise had been predicted and disconfirmed many times in the past, now more than ever before his career as a political leader seemed to be drawing to a close.
For the past twenty years Berlusconi himself – his role in politics, his legal difficulties, his conflict of interests – has been the main cleavage structuring political conflict in Italy. Therefore, Letta’s description of the events of 2 October as “historic” could well turn out to be much more than a politician’s hyperbole: we may indeed be witnessing the end of an era.


The Guardian (2013), “Silvio Berlusconi insists he will stay in politics”, 18 September, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/18/silvio-berlusconi-politics.