Berlusconi’s Long Hot Summer

Silvio Berlusconi has easily survived a series of corruption and sex scandals. Now a revolt by a former ally could pose a serious threat to the Italian prime minister, who many feel is on his last legs politically. Berlusconi has the summer recess to plot his survival.

The scene last Wednesday evening in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies showed what it looks like when governments collapse or almost collapse in Italy: The members of parliament jumped up from their red leather chairs, pointed their fingers at each other, shouted, forged last-minute alliances or argued with each other. A Berlusconi supporter even hit a defector from the Fini faction in the face with his campaign documents.

The factions are hopelessly at odds, as Italy’s government experiences one of its worst crises yet. What happened in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s parliament, is only a taste of what could cripple the country this fall. Partisan bickering, a stalemate, early elections — anything seems possible.

The crisis was triggered by the ejection of Gianfranco Fini, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PdL). Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was behind Fini’s ejection at the end of July. It was the end of a 16-year friendship between the two men. Berlusconi had decided that Fini was unacceptable and “incompatible” with his party.

While the rift between Fini and Berlusconi is clear, the situation in the parliament no longer is. So far, 33 members of the lower house of parliament and 10 senators have followed Fini into his hastily formed parliamentary group, Future and Freedom for Italy (FLI). The prime minister is now six votes shy of a majority.

Liberal Rebel

Ironically, it is Berlusconi’s former crown prince who is now making it exceedingly difficult for the prime minister to govern. Fini is a former neo-fascist who criticizes the premier for his “monarchist” style of leadership, his dubious concept of morality and his legal problems.

Fini, 16 years younger than Berlusconi, has turned into a rebel, a “traitor” in the eyes of his offended former patron. For months, Fini has done everything possible to torpedo the prime minister’s pet project, the so-called “muzzle law,” which is designed to limit the ability of courts and investigators to carry out wiretapping. It will also restrict media coverage of ongoing investigations.

Fini has become more and more liberal and increasingly leftist, supporting abortion rights and the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships, and sharply criticizing the xenophobic Northern League, one of Berlusconi’s coalition partners. Most of all, he did the previously unthinkable when he berated Berlusconi in public and demanded greater respect for the rule of law in politics.

Perhaps Fini took these bold steps because he believes that Berlusconi has long been on his last legs politically. He has stood in Berlusconi’s shadow for too long, and now that the prime minister’s star is on the wane, Fini recognizes his opportunity. Fini is hitting Berlusconi in his most vulnerable spot, accusing him of being part of a criminal old-boy network with only one goal in mind: to enrich himself. Fini knows that this touches a nerve among Italians, who are likely to be thrilled by the prospect of finally bringing down a prime minister whose popularity has plummeted, especially after a series of broken promises, reforms that were never implemented and two years marked by a lack of leadership.

Duce Vs. Judas

Last Wednesday, the Chamber of Deputies held a vote of no confidence against Giacomo Caliendo, 67, an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry who stands accused of being a member of a secret society, and of having influenced judges and paid bribes. Fini argued that the party could not tolerate someone who was under investigation, and in doing so he provoked the rift with Berlusconi.

Fini is the president of the Chamber of Deputies. He presides over the cabinet from his podium with a resolute face and stony gaze. When Berlusconi walked into the room last Wednesday, to chants of “Silvio, Silvio,” the prime minister raised his right hand in greeting. “Duce,” they called out from the left, and when Fini rang his little silver bell, those on the right shouted: “Judas.” Fini smiled and called the room to order. Italian politics was back where it had always been: a grand political theater devoid of all content.

By the end of the tumultuous session, Berlusconi had lost his stable majority. But because Fini’s supporters abstained, Berlusconi can remain in office at least until the next vote, after the parliamentary recess.

Preparing for a Fight

For Berlusconi, the weeks between now and the end of the recess on Sept. 8. will be difficult, unlike, say, the weeks he spent vacationing in Sardinia in the company of female escorts last year. This time he will retire to the Borghese family estate in Rome, a castle complete with its own watchtower. He will prepare his party for an election campaign and arm himself against his rival.

“We must get out of the quagmire into which Fini has driven us,” Berlusconi reportedly said, “or else we’ll end up like the Americans in Vietnam.”


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