Early in August, most European politicians left their parliaments amid farewell dinners and endless last minute meetings to go home to play normal people with their families on mountains and seaside locations. Things were quite different in Rome, Italy, where members of the Italian parliament, (Palazzo Montecitorio and Palazzo Madama) left with a promise and a threat. They will come back in September to choose and face the day of reckoning for the government led by Silvio Berlusconi and for the speaker of the lower house, Gianfranco Fini.
Italian politics and institutions do not enjoy the admiration and sympathy vote its people, country and culture are showered with. At the mention of Italian politics, many international observers react with expressions like “amusing,” “always in crisis”, “too many intrigues”, “too many power brokers”, “too many political parties” and “too complicated to follow”. These reactions have some truth in them but they are however exaggerated and do not take account of the changes that have occurred in the last decade. In my experience, non-Italians and indeed some Italians always need some introductory explanations when talking about Italian politics, here are some.
Gianfranco Fini is the speaker of the House of Representatives (La camera dei deputati), he comes from the very right wing of Italian politics and now sits tightly in the centre right of the political spectrum. He successfully and almost single-handedly led the MSI, (Movimento Sociale Italiano), into becoming AN, (Alleanza Nazionale). MSI was merely a fringe party with about 4-6% of national electoral support; It was a self defined neo fascist, clearly racist, proudly anti-Semitic, staunch advocate of a strong state, strong executive over parliament and with a third position political ideology, not to be mixed with the third way. AN, on the other hand, was a mainstream national conservative party formed with the influx of conservatives from other Italian moderate parties such as the defunct Christian Democracy (DC), Italian Liberal Party, (PLI) and even the Italian Republican Party (PRI). At its best, AN gained 15.7% electoral support in the 1996 general elections.
Almost every social observer has some ideas about who Silvio Berlusconi is and he appears to need very little introduction. He is probably the most famous Italian leader after Benito Mussolini. Politically, Berlusconi was born when he founded FI, (Forza Italia) in December 1993 and barely three months later led it to a national electoral victory in a breathtaking election within an acrobatic coalition called Polo delle Libertà. In the northern part of the country, the coalition was made up of fierce rivals such as his own party FI, the Northern League, LN (Lega Nord) of Umberto Bossi, the Christian Democratic Centre (CCD) led by Pier Ferdinando Casini and Clemente Mastella, both moderates from the defunct Christian Democracy (DC) and the Union of the Centre (UDC), made up of moderates from the defunct Italian Liberal Party, (PLI). In the south, the coalition was with AN, but without the Lega Nord of Umberto Bossi.
In the last thirteen years, a lot has happened in the centre-right of Italian politics. Some parties and some personalities left the coalition and others have returned. In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini dissolved their parties to form a mega centre-right movement called PDL (Popolo della Libertà) “People of Freedom”. This new party maintained its alliance in the northern part of the country with the Northern League but was formed without their third major ally Pier Ferdinando Casini who went on his own way to form UDC.
In the 2008 general elections, PDL became the first political party in the country by winning 37.4% of votes; no other single party has won that much in Italy since the DC in 1979. The two main leaders of PDL divided their roles: Silvio Berlusconi became the leader of the executive and Gianfranco Fini was elected speaker of the house.
Notwithstanding, their reservations on his style and some of his social exuberances, most of the members of the PDL accept the charismatic led style of their party and trust Berlusconi’s instinct and capacity to connect with the Italian public. An Italian MP summed it best to me in two words lui vince: he wins.
Gianfranco Fini however does not fall into that category, since about a year; he has become the most relevant critic of Berlusconi. The joke is that he has been more efficient than all the opposition parties put together. He has repeatedly called for a more structured party against Berlusconi’s instinct for a light party that relies on the leader’s charm. He has taken more liberal and centrist stances on issues such as immigration, separation of church and state, stem cells and has shown his discomfort with what appears to some as a crusade against the judiciary in a bid to shield some members of the ruling party from paying for their legal misdeeds. Expectedly, these did not go down well with Berlusconi.
The rift between the two leaders became apparent and irreversible in April this year. Gianfranco Fini’s loyalists formed a group called GI, (Generazione Italia), with the aim of being a forum to better articulate Fini’s position. The same month PDL held its first national committee meeting and it turned out to be a televised showdown between Fini and Berlusconi. On the 29th of July, PDL suspended Gianfranco Fini and his closest supporters from the party. 24hours later, Gianfranco Fini and his supporters formed a new parliamentary group FLI (Futuro e Libertà per Italia) Future and Freedom for Italy. It stems mainly from GI and most of its members come from the right but with some very notable exceptions.
With this move, the ruling majority is clearly in difficulty, as it cannot rely on a stable parliamentary majority anymore. The expected scenarios for those who think a parliamentary system should work the way it does in Westminster is for the Government to go to the parliament to verify its support and or call for a snap election. Above all, one would expect the opposition to be screaming for a snap election so they can get rid of a government they can brand as incompetent and quarrelsome. The politics of Palazzo Montecitorio and Palazzo Madama is however different and it offers unique lessons. In Rome, it is the opposition holding back from going to vote. The Italian main opposition parties, although progressives in their brand, appear more moderate and display a bigger instinct towards a sense of continuity and respect for existing institution. In times of crisis like this, only the Italian opposition will you hear make declarations like for the sake of stability and the economic situation of the country it is better not to vote but rather to suspend partisan politics, form a national coalition or submit the government to some unelected technical independent figure. What do you think? An example of a selfless act informed by great sense of civic responsibility or a fear of losing elections and the realisation that they have no credible alternative proposal?
As for Gianfranco Fini and his FLI, the lesson to be drawn is about the importance of ideology. Although Italian politics has seen a renaissance of its famous transformism with the political birth of Berlusconi and the national elevation of Fini, paradoxically, these are the two of the only three or so centre-right politicians in Italy that cannot change their political collocation. Regardless of the policies he might espouse Gianfranco
Fini is, and has to be seen, as a man of the right, at best looking towards the centre. As always in Italy, the centre is crowded and Gianfranco Fini can only operate from the right. In the USA, where we have probably the best example of a perfect bipolar political system a figure like Gianfranco Fini will probably present himself as an independent and if strong enough, try to create a national third force. The fortunes of those that have tried these options are clearly documented.
Gianfranco Fini is reputed to be sharp and hardly ever irrational so it is safe to assume that before anyone of us, he had an idea of the possibility of him being where he is now: stuck in a political swamp. How he gets out of it will be a lesson not to be missed as he will need more than some few articulation of policies, ideas and motivating to do.
Whilst Gianfranco Fini’s position might be a personal headache for him and his loyalist, it is a lesson for the rest of the world especially those developing nations of Africa where politicians tend vie for offices without the minimum attempt to justify their past or articulate their future.