On the Italian chessboard a year of positioning play is moving rapidly towards a new phase.
On Thursday, Berlusconi said that he was going to stand again and his party secretary Angelino Alfano said that they would withdraw PdL support from the government… but responsibly, after passing the budget which is before Parliament. Berlusconi reckoned that way he would be able to condition the timing of elections and the rhythm of the campaign. It would be him who decided when to pull the plug and use the moment most likely to give him a boost. Check.
Like anything political, Italy is not a simple chessboard with only two players; Berlusconi’s move stymied Monti certainly but also silenced his own internal opposition whose divisions were the centre-left’s best weapon and so put the PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani in the shade. Bersani has just won the centre-left coalition primaries and the PD is riding high in the polls at 38%. His moment of glory was short-lived, though. Now he has to deal with an antagonist who has already gone back to his traditional anti-communism using Nichi Vendola as a frightener to unite the alienated right wing voters. And finally Berlusconi was able to snub President Napolitano and the European institutions who removed him 13 months ago.
Then yesterday Monti made his own move. He resigned as prime minister with effect from the budget approval. Now it is Berlusconi who is checked. Monti has taken the initiative and it is him that can say when and what will happen. He has also said implicitly that he no longer feels barred from going directly into politics (rather than waiting politely on the sidelines waiting to be called). Presumably his Sunday is one of reflection on exactly how and with whom he is going to go into politics.
We’re still a long way from the endgame but with the election date likely to be at the end of February, we’re moving towards it.
In the meantime, the country will face a storm from the markets and strong implicit criticism from the European institutions. Already most European and American papers have laid into Berlusconi as a self-centred danger to his country.
The dinosaur he promised to pull out of the hat is himself, a Silviosaur but the new-old species does not have the resources or the glamour of the 1994 Mk 1 model so is not going to become prime minister. But he does have enough appeal and resources to make the life of whoever wins the elections very difficult and he will try to drive wedges through whatever centrist-centre-left coalition Bersani is able to come up with.
Berlusconi-Nero fiddling as Rome burns is an old image for cartoonists but is still a valid one but Monti’s counter move shows that the game will be a long and tough one; fascinating for chess buffs but of life and death importance for Italians and those who live in Italy. It’s not just a game.