Rome view: Napolitano stays; Berlusconi wins

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Deaf, inconsistent, and reckless: with these words a furious and tired Giorgio Napolitano, 87, referred to the parliament in his inaugural address on Monday as the reconfirmed (for the first time in Italy history) Italian head of state. He threatened to leave if politicians continue to act with “irresponsibility.” “I have a duty to be frank. If I find myself once again facing the kind of deafness I ran into in the past, I will not hesitate to draw the consequences,” he said, sounding like a teacher scolding his pupils. The warning was welcomed with warm and prolonged applause. It was a public admonishment over continued negligence that had hurt the country just as it had benefitted the political parties for many years. 

The reconfirmation of Napolitano came after days of uncertainty and division. Notwithstanding his age and his stated desire to retire, Napolitano had no choice: the parties begg ed him to stay as they simply did not know what to do. He broke the gridlock that began with general elections more than fifty days earlier – nearly two months that served to underline how deep Italy’s political crisis is. The Democratic Party and the People of Freedom Party, with the support of Monti’s “scelta civica”, had in the end to agree on Napolitano, who was re-elected with a large majority.

Certainly Napolitano has been an important head of state, and his strength allowed him to use his executive power in unprecedented ways that moved closer to a presidential system rather than a parliamentarian one. In foreign policy he managed to take firm positions, unusual for an Italian head of state. He voiced support for allies in Libya, when Berlusconi’s government had one foot in Gaddafi’s camp and the other in that of the European allies (at a public conference the then minister for foreign affairs Franco Frattini admitted that Napolitano was of great support to him in a very difficult time when he disagreed with his government’s approach over Libya). Notably, both Obama and Merkel used to talk only to Napolitano when the country was sinking under the Berlusconi administration. Shortly after helping Italy avoid slipping into something like the Greek scenario the New York Times labelled him Re Giorgio (King George) for “his stately defense of Italian democratic institutions and the outsize albeit behind-the-scenes role he played in the rapid shift from the cinematic government of Silvio Berlusconi to the technocratic one of Mario Monti.”

If having back Napolitano clearly represents a step forward out of political stagnation, what is to be watched is the logic that will direct the formation of a new government. The alliance that has begged the 87 year old president to remain is one that Silvio Berlusconi wants to form the country’s government (something repeatedly refused by Pier Luigi Bersani). Beppe Grillo has nicknamed the alliance “l’inciucio”, and it has also been denounced by many voters in the base of the Democratic Party. In fact, internal division has led to real problems within the Democratic Party, revealing its incapacity to represent the full range of its own voters. It may even lead to the Democratic Party’s collapse. 

At first the PD supported a candidate beloved by the centre right, Franco Marini, leading to furious protests (#OccupyPD) across the country and outside the parliament. Once Marini was defeated they opted for Romano Prodi, the founder of the Party (and a two-times victor over Berlusconi). In fact the announcement of Prodi’s candidacy by Pierluigi Bersani was given a standing ovation by the Party’s leading electors. But – surprise surprise – Prodi did not attract sufficient support: 101 of those big electors betrayed him and the Party line (one out of four decided not to vote for their founding father). This was a total disaster and may herald the end of the Democratic Party. It has been accused of arrogance and deafness, and that it is far more interested in safeguarding its own interests rather than talking to the people and understanding their discontent. They did not explain why they did not support Grillo’s candidate Stefano Rodotà, despite sympathy from many PD voters. Alternatives like Emma Bonino don’t seem to have been considered.

The result is their worst nightmare: Berlusconi is the real winner, once again. Twenty years on, nothing has changed.

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