Italy’s problems beyond Berlusconi

ROME - So Silvio Berlusconi is barred from holding public office for two years; yesterday the Milan Court of Appeal handed down its verdict after the Supreme Court had declared that their previous sentence of 5 years did not comply with the law.
In immediate personal terms for Berlusconi and political terms for the country, nothing changes with the sentence. He will not be expelled from the Senate tomorrow (that will depend on the Senate ratifying the Court and will take weeks, possibly months) and he is hardly likely to apply for a public service job either now or in the next two years, though he might like to serve on some public industry board.
The only immediate effect is a reminder to him and to the world that Berlusconi is a convicted criminal, something he does not like to be reminded of. His next hurdle is the vote in the Senate, probably in the next fortnight or so, to expel him under the terms of a 2012 anti-corruption law (called the “Severino” after its sponsor) which bars anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office at any level. Regional and city councillors have no option and a number have already been expelled but as the Senate is sovereign, it has to ratify the expulsion of one of its members. The vote will almost certainly be secret (they are arguing the point) and Berlusconi hopes to be able to persuade enough senators to betray their party whips – possible but unlikely.
Some reports had him threatening to bring the government down if he is expelled…again. It didn’t work at the beginning of the month and it is unlikely to work next month; much more likely to split his own party as happened three weeks ago.
There is still a lot of newspaper copy to be wrought from the Berlusconi saga (not least on the more prurient side as all sorts of courtiers and courtesans begin to sing) but less and less on the political effects.
This should mean that Italy’s real political problems will be debated. Some are institutional and structural, others are human and political. Not surprisingly, the first are easier to resolve than the latter but their resolution depends on solving those latter problems.
Italy is the only parliamentary system with perfect bicameralism. Both houses have equal power and any government needs the confidence of both houses. Until this year, there was never a time when the majorities were different but the February parliament gave no one a majority in the Senate; hence the major difficulty in forming a government.
The number of parliamentarians is also perceived as excessive, not an obstacle to government but it certainly undermines public confidence in the institutions so there is general agreement that along with reducing the Senate’s powers, the numbers of both houses should be reduced. We can expect passive resistance to both measures.
The electoral system itself is perceived as an obstacle to government formation because of the different majority in the two houses (a problem which would go away as soon as the Senate lost its equal power). It is also perceived as being unjust – the winning coalition in the Chamber automatically takes 55% of the seats even if as in February, they only took 29.55% (compared to the losers’ 29.18%, 125,000 votes). Finally, as a fixed party list system, it gives absolute power to the party leader or leadership (and not the electorate) as to who gets elected first.
These are technical problems which could be easily solved but like all technical problems, their solution depends on the human priorities behind them.
Forming a government coalition is not “technical” in any way; it requires a will and some compromise. The Italians themselves did it happily and successfully for 44 years under the present constitution. The majority of other countries have coalitions… even Britain has a coalition now. And from the end of April, Italy too once again has a coalition but this time of very unwilling partners. The problem is less ideological (the partners’ policy differences are no more than in Germany, Austria or Britain and often less) and more the personal animosity which has been built up over the last 20 years by Berlusconi and the opposition to him. His time in politics is passing but his heritage will stay on for a long time. The acrimony and personalisation have been made worse by Beppe Grillo’s style and substance which are averse to any form of compromise.
The other, and I think even more serious, obstacle to effective government (making a decision – hopefully the right one – and then implementing it) are the divisions within the parties themselves. All show signs of serious fissures.
Last week, Mario Monti resigned from Civic Choice (Scelta Civica, SC) which he had founded in December. He felt that his party was veering towards the more moderate elements of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (Popolo della Libertà, PdL) and supported the Letta government’s budget uncritically. In practice, he had lost control. 
The PdL and Democratic Party (PD) have had visible cracks for months. The first between Berlusconi diehards on one side and the so-called governativi on the other who support the government and are not prepared to go down on the sinking Berlusconi ship. On the centre-left, there are left-right divisions but personalities are more important. The Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi, looks as if he will win the elections for the secretaryship but it is far from clear if he wants the menial and mediatory tasks of a secretary – he wants to be prime minister. And he is a divisive figure. As for the third big grouping, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), there were divisions from the moment they were elected, a division on how decisions should be taken and by whom. Only last week, a group of grillini supported a motion to abolish the present immigration law, only to be upbraided by Grillo.
These are all major problems of leadership, not of policy choices and they will not be solved either easily or quickly whether Berlusconi is officially a senator or not.
James Walston is Professor of International Relations at the American University of Rome.