Once upon a time in a republic far, far away, every year or so the natives went through a fascinating, time consuming and very baroque rite to decide which of a restricted group of tribal elders should be chief for the next 11 months. Occasionally it took a week or so, other times up to four months. Soothsayers spent hours observing the auguries to try and predict the future leader; the entrails of many birds were examined (and the rest of the bird ritually eaten in specially designated temples or osterie or sometimes trattorie surrounding the sacred mound – Monte Citorio – where the public phases of the selection process took place).
No, it was not the papal election which in comparison is simple, straightforward and apart from one notable exception is quick. The exception was an almost three year conclave between 1268 and 1271 but they adjusted the system and have had no serious problems since.
This was the so-called government crises of the “First Republic”, the system of government that ran Italy from the war (or to be precise, from the 1946 referendum which introduced the republic) until 1994. It was dominated by the Christian Democratic (DC) party assisted by the Socialist Party from the ‘60s onwards. Because of the Cold War, obviously the Communist opposition could not alternate in power in a NATO country so the DC stayed in power for the whole period. It was dubbed “the imperfect two party system”. The DC was a catch-all party going from clerico-fascists on the right to christian socialists on the left with a lot of personal factions in the middle.
These jostled for power – usually positions but occasionally policies by intimating (there were almost no explicit votes of confidence) that they no longer supported the prime minister of the moment. The crisis was normally little more than a re-shuffle of ministers and undersecretaries to reflect the changing power relationship between the factions and it was acted out in a stylised way rivalling Japanese Noh theatre.
If you haven’t lived through the period or studied it, what is happening today is difficult to follow but it mimicks the old ritual.
Then, after a prime minister realised he no longer had the confidence of the houses, he would “go up the hill”, the Quirinal where the President’s palace is, to hand in his resignation. The president would then consult with all the political parties including the smallest and most marginal, and with his predecessors. Then, usually, he would give a mandate to the outgoing PM to form a new government. The prime minister designate would do the rounds, offer jobs and policy measures to see if he could build a majority. If he failed, the president would charge another, normally DC, leader who would do the same.
Over the consultations, there would be sweepstakes opened in all the papers on the chances of this or that candidate making. Political insiders were consulted on their dark arts and darker knowledge.
In exceptional circumstances, he would invite a non-political figure to form a “technical” government with ministers either from across the spectrum as with Ciampi in 1993 or with no party attachment as with Dini in 1995 although Dini himself was an outgoing minister.
Over the last few days there has been a stream of visitors at the Quirinale from opposition and government parties. They look suspiciously like the consultations of the old days although of course Napolitano is at pains to say that they are “informal”.
At the moment the medium long odds are still on Mario Monti to lead “a President’s Government” (a new term) of technocrats supported by most of the parties but there is some talk of Berlusconi’s eminence grise, Gianni Letta taking over a political government with support from enough of the opposition to guarantee a majority. Increasingly, phone in shows have people saying “why doesn’t the president get rid of Berlusconi and give the job to someone else”. All well and good, but the President doesn’t actually have the power to do so until Berlusconi steps down.
But in the meantime, he’s making contingency plans just in case…
The substance of the present crisis is a long, long way from the “First Republic”. The financial crisis is real and the issue of confidence vital for Italy and Europe. Whereas the First Republic prime ministers were part of a carousel and knew that they would be back as cabinet ministers, Berlusconi is fighting for his political life. And whereas old crises could play on for weeks or months, Belgium style, and the country continued steadily, this one is for real and at stakes is the economic future of the country.
Last night, the cabinet passed a major amendment which they promise will become law by the middle of the month. There is no wealth tax but the promise to sell off public property is there and some employment stimuli. There are measures to accelerate the civil law, way overdue but not something which will produce short term effects. Even if the whole amendment becomes law, it will not change Italy’s economy from one day to the next or even the perception of the economy.
The chances of it becoming law are decreasing hour by hour as more and more one time Berlusconi faithfuls are leaving the sinking ship. There is open bickering once again in the cabinet between Berlusconi and Tremonti. The next crunch will be the markets tomorrow and on Monday, the spread between German and Italian bonds; and that other crucial index, the government’s majority in Parliament which sinks as the spread expands.