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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Italy's latest coalition crisis is a morbid symptom of deeper political malaise

As Silvio Berlusconi causes chaos by telling his ministers to quit, there is a despairing sense that this crisis will decide nothing

Crisis is a term that originated in the world of ancient Greek medicine. It referred to that turning point in an illness when the fate of the patient was to be decided. Italy's latest political crisis was triggered by Silvio Berlusconi's most recent survival tactic: to order the resignations from the cabinet of his ministers, in an obvious bid to impede the judicial procedure that would lead to his arrest for tax fraud and dismissal from the Senate. Amid the petty chaos of recriminations, and the parliamentary horse-trading in view of a possible second government under current prime minister Enrico Letta, there is a widespread, despairing sentiment that this particular crisis won't decide anything.

The collapse of Berlusconi's government in 2011 under the shadow of a Greek-style sovereign debt crisis, and the constitution of Letta's improbable coalition government created this spring after post-electoral deadlock, were similar crises. Their sole function was to hold at bay the commandeering of the Italian economy by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) – which is now again being raised as a possibility.

Neither Mario Monti, the technocrat who served as prime minister from 2011 to 2013, nor Letta have been able to gather any significant support for their plans to adapt Italy to the EU's fiscal restrictions. How could they? Monti introduced balanced budgets into the Italian constitution, effectively neutering its provisions for social need's precedence over market imperatives. The Letta government, bringing his centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) into a doomed alliance with its historical nemesis, Berlusconi, resolved a crisis of governability by intensifying a crisis of legitimacy.

At the time, the victor appeared to be Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement. But his refusal to form alliances, while an initial asset in an understandably anti-political climate, appears to have diminishing returns. His irrepressible rants against the establishment often blur into the general climate of political disgust, while his periodic browbeating of Five Star MPs reminds voters of Berlusconi. His stance on alliances is both his strong point and his ultimate weakness, and it would be a surprise to see a repeat of his unexpected surge of 2013, though the rudderlessness of other parties might still play into his hands.

What of the other political forces? Somewhat like the British Lib Dems tarnished by coalition with the Tories, the PD's now imploded alliance with Berlusconi can't have endeared a constituency that will now regard it as having colluded, mainly through staggering strategic incompetence, in Berlusconi's Houdini act. Let's not forget that some of its voters were once communist supporters, and shoring up a corrupt anti-communist tycoon is bound to rankle them.

The odds are that the PD will adopt Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, as leader. By most accounts, Renzi is angling for early elections. His image is that of a Blairite upstart, trying to channel public exhaustion with the political class into a modernisation – which is to say an Americanisation – of the Italian centre-left.

Ever since the ex-PD leader Walter Veltroni started praising President Kennedy as a way to jettison communism, this has been an abiding theme, manifesting itself institutionally in the desperate attempt to engineer a US-style two-party system through breathtakingly inept electoral reforms – the latest one, the "Porcellum" (after porcello, swine), was behind the impasse earlier this year.

On the right, some of Berlusconi's ministers, having done their boss's bidding, now warn about the danger of their party lurching to the extreme right. Meanwhile, attempts are afoot to manoeuvre existing MPs into another rightwing coalition, possibly to shore up a second Letta government.

So Italy's future centres around one man willing to overturn the political system to save his hide; a government agenda with little legitimacy and even less popular support; and mounting disgust which fails to find political expression.

Evidently, this crisis, whatever its short-term outcome, is but an inflection of a much deeper and more complex one, a crisis of political representation with roots in a declining economy. Antonio Gramsci described this phenomenon quite aptly in his prison notebooks: "The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

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