Waiting for white smoke in Italian politics

Vatican PopeWhiteSmoke313FT Blog (F.Giugliano) – There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.

The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.

On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.

Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution.

Mr Berlusconi is keen on a grand coalition with the centre-left, which would complete a stunning comeback since his political near-death last autumn. However, Mr Bersani has ruled out this option as he fears it would create a backlash among his coalition’s grassroots supporters and only build support for the Five Star Movement.

The centre-left hopes it will be able to win the support of the grillini, or at least to peel off enough of them to form a working coalition. This alliance could include the centrist party that formed around Mr Monti, who has missed out on a role as kingmaker after his poor showing in the polls.

However, Mr Grillo has repeatedly ruled out his movement backing a government led by a mainstream political leader. He has urged the other political forces to support a one-party Five Star government. However, this can be easily ruled out, since it would be a total humiliation for the others.

Possible outcome #1 President Napolitano may give the opportunity to form a government to Mr Bersani, on the grounds that the centre left controls the lower chamber and has the highest number of seats in the Senate. The Democrat leader may be given an “explorative mandate”, with the aim of double-checking whether there are enough senators willing to back him in a confidence vote.

Possible outcome #2 The other option – which could happen in lieu of or after giving Mr Bersani a chance – is that of a “high-profile” executive. This would be essentially another technocratic cabinet, albeit it would not be called “technocratic” since this adjective has become too poisonous after the experience of the Monti government.

The names tipped to lead this executive administration are Anna Maria Cancellieri, home affairs minister under Mr Monti, and Pietro Grasso, the former chief anti-mafia prosecutor and a newly elected Democrat senator. Many in Rome consider him one to watch. He was elected speaker of the upper house last Saturday thanks to the votes of the centre left and of some Five Star senators.

The centre left hopes this version could open a rift in the Five Star Movement, just as the election of Mr Grasso did last weekend. However, it is much less clear whether Mr Grillo or his MPs intend to play ball. This will depend on whether or not they fear a new election.

The polls – which should be treated with scepticism after they failed to predict the result of last February’s elections – are inconclusive. One, out this week, shows that if Italy returned to the polls with the same electoral law and the same players, Mr Grillo would win an outright majority. However, the centre-left would stand a chance of winning a majority in coalition with Mr Monti if it fielded a younger candidate:Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence.

President Napolitano is known to be keen to have a government in place soon. So far, markets have been relatively lenient but yields on government bonds are ticking upwards and the Milan stock exchange is underperforming its peers. Were the crisis in Cyprus to unravel, the centre-left and the centre-right may be forced into an awkward coalition to deal with the possible effects of a contagion.

Whatever the outcome of these consultations, no one should expect the next government to last for very long. Elections in June are improbable but possible. A new vote within the next year or two is almost inevitable.

Meanwhile, the recession continues and Italians are becoming poorer by the day. As with the papal vacancy and the work of the conclave, the belief in a quick recovery is looking ever more like an act of faith.


3 thoughts on “Waiting for white smoke in Italian politics

  1. Pingback: New government: politics in stalemate, business desperate | theitalianist

  2. Pingback: Italy’s Political Crisis is in President Napolitano’s Hands | theitalianist

  3. Pingback: Italy’s Government, Bersani Keeps on Struggling | theitalianist

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