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Italy's Political Quagmire: is Berlusconi on the come-back trail?

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Rome , January 13, 2013

The unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Mario Monti,  a few weeks before the natural, constitutionally appointed end of the Legislature, has thrown  Italy's political life into a state of turmoil and confusion reminiscent of former times.

The fact that Monti himself,  as he announced in the course of his end of year  press conference, has become an active participant to the electoral race, although in a rather unique and indirect way, has certainly not simplified matters. He, in fact is playing a rather audacious role, trying to appear as a modern-day Cincinnatus,  (or, for that matter, de Gaulle) waiting to be called to the helm of the Republic.

One of the many paradoxes in Italy's present political setup is given by the remarkable influence still being wielded by Professor  Monti, a figure who has never run for office before and who, until  now, had been totally absent from the country's political life.

This confusing situation has been considered a Godsend by the  more stalwart followers of  former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, in spite of appearances to the contrary, and notwithstanding his  self-contradicting remarks, cannot be considered a spent force in the  political spectrum. He has, in fact,  launched a massive campaign in the attempt to stage one of those "come-backs" for which he is famous. As  his opponents  grudgingly admit,  Berlusconi has proven to be totally ineffectual as a leader, but he is an incredibly efficient campaigner, aided in this by the control he wields on six of the seven major television networks. The question that is being asked by perplexed observers in Italy (and abroad) is whether  Berlusconi's unrivalled showmanship will  convince the Italian voters next February, or whether, after a year of political sobriety and harsh austerity measures, they will tend to focus more on concrete issues.

 There are signs of  unusual cohesion in the Centre-Left Democratic Party, which, according to current polls, could emerge as the winner in the next elections,  remaining short, however, of the overall majority in both Houses of Parliament which would allow it to govern efficiently.

The Prime Minister himself has openly faulted the  majority Centre-Right party, Mr. Berlusconi's "People of Liberty",  for its lack of support, accusing  it of having caused a premature and needless  Government crisis and reserving some  elegant but venomously caustic remarks for Mr. Berlusconi himself. He has also confirmed his hope to witness the formation of a credible "centrist" coalition whose platform would be a political  agenda issued by Monti, available on line, and which will participate in the elections bearing Monti's name..

Berlusconi's party still has a majority in Parliament, but  its popular support,  according to reliable polls, has fallen dramatically to all-time low levels (between 15 and 18%). Since the inception of an aggressive Television campaign, it appears, however, to be on the upswing again.

In this complex, and in many ways typically Italian, game,  the newly formed Centrist party, led by Monti, which at the moment has limited popular appeal could end up  influential enough to become a decisive element in Italy's future political setup. Not only is it  totally committed to Professor Monti, but it also has the explicit backing of the Roman Catholic Church. There are renewed signs, just as in the summer of 2011, that  many Catholic oriented political figures from the right and the left have converged upon this grouping, thus recreating, "de facto" the Christian Democratic Party which dominated the Italian political scene from the late forties until well into the nineties.

The other players, at the moment, have only minor roles to fulfil, although It would be a mistake to underestimate the negotiating strength of the separatist, anti-European, xenophobic and sometimes racist "Northern League", which played a vital role in the former government and could again become an important player with its newly forged -- albeit fragile -  alliance with Berlusconi, particularly in the Northern regions, which, thanks to Italy's extremely complex electoral system could allow its members an important numerical presence in the Upper House of Parliament..

In this game, one can say that "The Joker is Wild", and  it is therefore essential to keep an eye on the maverick, populist "Five Stars" movement, founded and run by comedian Beppe Grillo, which, at the moment  has significant popular support. The question is whether it can keep the momentum it has gained or whether it is destined to shrink to its former size or perhaps disappear from the political scene altogether.

Shrewd politicians have also got their  eye on the  record number of declared non-voters (over 30%, a record in Italian politics), but the feeling is that as political activity  gains momentum this number is bound to shrink.

The occult  aim of a number leading political figures appears to be the creation of a  hung Parliament, given the apparent impossibility of any one of the players to  form a significant majority in both Houses.  The President, Giorgio Napolitano, could thus move to renew the Monti experience, this time, however,  giving the Government a more political character. As an alternative, a mixed Parliament could hold together just long enough to elect Monti as President of the Republic (Napolitano's mandate expires in April), and then proceed to new, even more uncertain elections.

The pattern is neither unexpected nor accidental and appeared with some clarity as early as the Spring of 2011, when the Italian Bishops' Conference, acting in harmony with the Holy See,  withdrew its support from Berlusconi's party, thus openly encouraging the formation of a Catholic oriented  political grouping in Parliament.

If Berlusconi should succeed in his  come-back attempt -- which, at the moment, appears unlikely -- he could upset this  delicate balance and  provoke a return to the disastrous policies of the past.

In all probability, however, no matter which of the other contestants should obtain a majority  in next February's elections, the real winner will be the Roman Catholic Church, and this, of course, will have a strong influence on Italy's internal politics, although it should not modify the country's basically pro-European stance.

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).

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