Guest contributor at SAIS Europe
In the past several weeks, the Italian government has teetered on the verge of collapse. While astonished Americans struggled to understand the politics behind the shutdown in Washington, in Italy, politicians promoted their self-interests at the expense of the Italian political system, as they routinely have for at least two decades.
The trouble once again comes from Silvio Berlusconi. The media tycoon and former Prime Minister was recently convicted by the Court of Cassation — Italy’s Supreme Court — for fiscal evasion by his television company Mediaset. Since then, he has been trying to hold on to his Senate chair, menaced by a procedural vote of the Assembly. According to the Legge Severino norm, any member of Parliament who has been convicted and sentenced to jail for two years or more loses his seat. Yet this is only true if the relevant Chamber of Congress authorizes it by majority vote. Ironically, Berlusconi’s party helped to push this legislation through just a year ago.
Berlusconi has retained leverage in this fight. Berlusconi’s party, the Popolo della Libertà (PLD), and the Partito Democratico (PD), the main center-left party, jointly support the coalition government led by Enrico Letta. This means that Berlusconi can influence the destiny of the executive. Needless to say, he has.
The situation escalated just a few days before the crucial vote when Berlusconi threatened to withdraw his support for the coalition government if he were to lose his Senate seat. On 29 September, just five days before the vote, Berlusconi ordered the ministers in government belonging to his party to step down.
Letta, in turn, while in New York trying to reassure international investors of Italy’s stability, took the issue to Parliament to ask for a vote of confidence. The vote was scheduled for 2 October.
The day of the vote, with the government at risk of collapse, the stock market in Milan plummeting and Italy’s borrowing costs rising steadily, Italians were left completely numb. This situation has occurred too many times to provoke any surprise or active reaction from Italian citizens. More often, pressure comes from the European media and officials because when Italy flounders economically the rest of Europe feels the effects.
Confronted with external pressures and several defections from his party, Berlusconi suddenly changed his mind and decided to vote for the confidence.
This is politics in Italy, where no moral imperative holds. The country’s destiny for the past twenty years has been closely linked to Berlusconi’s caprices. And now he is once more in charge and no one is to blame but Italian voters.
Meanwhile, migrants spend their life savings to escape Syria, Somalia and Eritrea to cross the Mediterranean only to die off the island of Lampedusa to join this instability. For some, even this precarious reality offers hope. Nolite umquam oblivisci, the Latins would say.