The Irish Times – Tuesday, November 16, 2010

PADDY AGNEW in Rome

THE LONG-DRAWN-OUT crisis of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government became official yesterday when four members of his cabinet resigned, thus making it highly probable that the government will collapse within the next month.

Adolfo Urso, Andrea Ronchi, Antonio Buonfiglio and Roberto Menia, four members of the breakaway Future and Liberty (FLI) party led by Mr Berlusconi’s former close ally, the speaker of the lower house, Gianfranco Fini, all handed in their resignations yesterday.

This move was the latest in a complex chess game which has seen Mr Berlusconi at loggerheads with Mr Fini for much of the last year and which has partially paralysed government action.

Having publicly criticised Mr Berlusconi last spring, Mr Fini was formally expelled from the ruling People of Freedom Party (PDL) in July. Since then, he has been quickly regrouping his forces, drawing on the catchment area provided by his own formerly neo-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party, a group which merged with Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party just 30 months ago.

Mr Fini broke with Mr Berlusconi primarily because of his concern both about the government’s inaction and its style. In a speech to his fledgling party faithful last September, he accused the media tycoon of having failed to understand that “governing” is not the same as “commanding”.

Mr Berlusconi, he argued, badly needed to stop confusing leadership with the ownership of his many companies. Arguing that there was no serious confrontation of ideas within the PDL, he accused the prime minister of running the party along “illiberal, authoritarian” lines reminiscent of the “worst type of Stalinism”.

In particular, Mr Fini chose to fight Mr Berlusconi on the moral high ground of justice-related issues, objecting to the prime minister’s constant promotion of legislation intended to resolve his own particular “judicial” problems and accusing him of seeking permanent impunity for himself.

As of now, Mr Fini can count on at least 40, if not more, parliamentarians, enough to seriously compromise the Berlusconi government majority in both houses. In a flexing of muscle, the FLI deputies voted with the opposition to defeat three different government motions on immigration last week.

For the time being, however, a parliamentary no-confidence vote has not been scheduled, largely because opposition figures agree that until the 2011 Finance Bill (Italy’s budget) has been passed, any such move would be irresponsible.

When the budget has been passed, perhaps by the end of this month, then hostilities will begin, with government and opposition vying to present confidence and no-confidence votes in both houses.

If the government is defeated in either house, the prime minister will have to remit his mandate into the hands of President Giorgio Napolitano. At that point, Mr Berlusconi is almost certain to call for an immediate general election to resolve the crisis. A broad swathe of opposition forces, however, is likely to call for some form of technical, national government that would enact electoral reform and then resign.