Lemmings or Lemurs. Last One Alive Wins.

ROME-- The New Yorker has a crowd of furry animals rushing over a cliff until one of them realises that they are lemurs, not lemmings.

At the moment, the Italian political class seems to be in the same state. They are rushing to the brink and the one that holds back enough for the others to go over the edge will be the winner. For the lemmings it is the evolutionary race, for the politicians, much more banally, it will be the general election, possibly this autumn, more likely next spring and at the latest in spring 2015 but it will certainly be the fittest that survives: the one who realises that he is a lemur and not a lemming.

There are three main players and all three are at risk, the minor ones even more so.

Within the government, the Democratic Party (PD) is licking its wounds after the double election debacle. First they allowed what seemed to be a sure victory slip through their fingers in February and then they were unable to unite behind a candidate for the presidency… twice. Today it is a party without leadership and without a clear programme or even general principles. In practice it is no longer a party – rather, it is a tribute to the organisational ability of the long dead Communist Party (PCI) that the PD exists at all, more than 20 years and three name changes after the demise of the PCI. The victories in the local elections 10 days ago and the likely victories in the run-off elections on Sunday (particularly here in Rome) have papered over the cracks. The PD-led Letta government also provides a semblance of a united and functioning party and is certainly an encouragement to stay together. There is an extraordinary congress planned for the autumn in which they should elect a new secretary and refound the party but the knives are already being sharpened and will probably be used long before November. Lemming number one.

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) is the other pillar of the government. For the moment, they look pretty solid and united, if only behind the Leader. But even there, there are divisions. The hawks want to attack the judiciary on all fronts if Berlusconi is convicted in the crucial Mediaset case where the Supreme Court might confirm the Court of Appeal’s four year gaol sentence and five year bar on holding public office. “All fronts” means street demonstrations, refusal to pay taxes and elections with one issue – Berlusconi. The doves prefer the softly-softly approach within the law. The fissures which appeared before Christmas are still there as the different centre-right groups position themselves for the post-Berlusconi era so the PdL too risks an explosion. Lemming number two.

The final element within the government is Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (SC). Even though Monti hopes for a comeback either at the next Italian elections or for the European Parliament next year, they (and he) showed true lemming spirit in the simple act of going into politics. Mario Monti threw himself off the cliff before Christmas when he went into politics. As if to underline SC’s normality in the Italian political system, one of its senators, Aldo Di Biagio is being investigated as part of a €22m INPS (national insurance) scam.

In the opposition, the principal element is of course Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Even before their February victory, Grillo was very clear that there would be some wastage among the new parliamentarians. Some would be taken in by the siren songs from either Bersani or Berlusconi, others would not be up to the job. In the event, up to now, there have been no defections. Two parliamentarians, the first two are leaving today, more than three months after the elections with a possible couple of dozen to follow. It was also clear that the movement would have to give itself an organisational structure if it wasn’t just going to be a flash in the pan. They are working on the structure and their image – they now accept interviews and go on television. But like the PD and the PdL, they risk dissolution. Lemming number three.

On the edge of the opposition (opposition in Parliament, in regional government coalition with the PdL in the north) is the Northern League (LN). Last year’s corruption investigation was followed by the resignation of founder Umberto Bossi and his succession by Roberto Maroni left the party weak and divided. Over the last few days, Bossi has returned to the fray promising battle and possibly another party. Another lemming.

For those that don’t like animal metaphors, there is always the tontine. This was an 18th C. financial product (I suppose we would call it now), in which investors put in money to a common fund which then paid them an annuity. As the investors died, so the dividend would increase and in some schemes the last one alive would take the capital. Plenty of comic novels and films have been based on how to keep an ailing grandfather alive or cover up his demise – this could be the first political tontine. I understand (from Wiki, so it must be right) that the tontine takes its name from the Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti; it’s not clear whether it is the politicians or the Italian people who are the tonti.