Berlusconi's About-Face A Vote of Confidence Will Not Suffice

It was a good day for Italy: Silvio Berlusconi had no choice but to reverse course and back Prime Minister Enrico Letta. But the government in Rome remains unstable. If Italy wants lasting stability, the political class will have to undergo radical reform.

Silvio Berlusconi failed in his attempt to bring down the Italian government

Silvio Berlusconi failed in his attempt to bring down the Italian government

A Commentary by

Poor Italy. It doesn't deserve its crazy politics -- but it did elect its politicians and will probably have to put up with them for a little bit longer.

Silvio Berlusconi's attempt to bring about the downfall of the government and force new elections failed embarrassingly on Wednesday. In the end, he had to place his own vote of confidence for Prime Minister Enrico Letta to prevent an even worse outcome. Many of his own party cohorts, led by his protege and the general secretary of his People of Freedom (PDL) party, Angelino Alfano, had turned against "Il Cavaliere." They did not want to plunge their country further into chaos, they said and forcedBerlusconi into his about-face. That is commendable, but it is not enough.

Several deputies and senators from Berlusconi's party have indicated that they will continue to support the government of Social Democrat Enrico Letta. Maybe they want to set up their own political faction. In addition, a senator who was elected on the populist Five Star Movement ticket of former comedian Beppe Grillo but who recently joined the independent camp, has been loudly rallying her former Five Star colleagues to back Letta.

The upcoming vote in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house of parliament, is not an issue because the government has a majority there.

Not Quite Historic

All in all, it was an encouraging day with a few bright spots, but it was far from being the "historic day" for Italy Letta proclaimed it to be. There is still too much missing.

The chaos in Rome is not entirely disconnected from what has happened oltre Tevere, as the Romans say -- "over the Tiber", i.e. in the Vatican -- since Pope Francis took up office: understanding and change, an end to the ornate games of money and power and the political puppet shows for the pleasure of vain old men. There is a call for Italy's leaders to return to what they were actually appointed (in the Vatican) or elected (in parliament) to do. But at the time being, even after today's events, there is little more than a spark of hope.

Italy's agony will continue as long as there is a large majority in both houses that continues to put its own personal ambitions ahead of solving the country's problems. In the next few weeks, the onorevoli, or the "honorable" as Italian parliamentarians are addressed, will have plenty of opportunity to do just that.

A new electoral law must be passed so that there is much less risk of future elections ending in stalemate.

An Uphill Battle

The state must save billions, cut red tape, modernize a crusty old country. Letta's government has succeeded on some of these objectives, but not nearly enough of them. And most have not even been agreed upon. A gigantic mountain that has been growing for decades and is still getting bigger must be scaled.

• Italy is the only major industrial nation whose economy has continued to shrink this year, by 1.8 percent.

• In the competitiveness rankings "Bella Italia" slipped a further seven points in 2013 and is now ranked 49th out of 148 counties -- behind the likes of Lithuania and Barbados.

• Some 40 percent of Italians between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed, more than ever before.

• The country's debt continues to grow. Against all promises, net borrowing will only stay under the 3 percent hurdle with some serious massaging of the balance sheet, if at all.

And things will go on like this, as long as the politicians fail to do their jobs.

Anointed by God

Nothing else is to be expected from Silvio Berlusconi. This is the man, after all, who went into politics 20 years ago to save his own skin. The judiciary tried to "remove him from office against the will of the people" despite the fact that he was still an elected head of government "as anointed by God," he raged when he was accused of abetting bribery.

The charges have since become more diverse: accounting fraud, tax fraud, paying for sex with minors, and the list goes on. But the problem has remained the same. At the moment, Berlusconi is trying desperately to prevent his threatened expulsion from parliament. On Friday the issue will once more be the subject of a Senate committee hearing. It should be noted that Berlusconi's forced acquiescence to Letta's leadership is worth next to nothing: It's only against a backdrop of political chaos that the billionaire media mogul has any chance of prevailing.

It's a similar case to that of Beppe Grillo and his populist "Grillini." Were the country to find its way back to any kind of reasonable course, total opposition to Rome, Brussels and Berlin would lose all its appeal.

Pinning Hopes on the 'Scrapper'

And even upright, well-behaved Prime Minister Letta is running on two tracks: He's concerned about Italy, of course, but he's also concerned with fending off attacks from his intra-party rivals, such as Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi. Renzi made a big splash as a rottamatore -- a scrapper -- when he demanded that the entire political elite be "scrapped." A large part of the population, on the right and the left, sees things in the same light and cheered the mayor's pronouncements. Now there is hope that Renzi could prove to be the reformer Italy so sorely needs.

All the Italian opinion polls say that if elections were held now -- even without a new electoral law -- Renzi would win a majority.

But the governing elite in Rome naturally doesn't want this. Italy has had 14 governments and eight different prime ministers since 1992 -- compared to Germany's three governments over the same period. But that's what Rome is about. For most, personal glory is more important than country. Poor Italy.


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