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My Home Sweet Rome - Habemus Governo. But for How Long?

Sari Gilbert

 

As of Sunday, April 28th, Italy has a new government; a 21-member cabinet led by Democratic Party (PD) deputy leader Enrico Letta but including members of Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PdL). Sworn into office that day, the coalition, the first ever since 1947 in which right and left have been partners, is supposed to last at least 18 months and to deal with the country's most pressing problems: jobs, taxes and electoral reform. But observers agree the outlook is not promising.

In 1947, a largely destroyed postwar Italy had just abolished its monarchy, written a new constitution, and had to bring together all the forces (Communists, Socialists and Christian Democrats) involved in the wartime Resistance against the Germans until the first national elections could be held on April 18, 1948. Today, instead, an economically-troubled nation has been kept from functioning by an unprecedented political stalemate triggered by the ascendency of a protest party, the Five Stars Movement; the movement came in third with about 25% of the vote, electing 163 people to parliament, but since then has refused to ally itself with anyone.

The elections in February were basically a three-way tie among the Democratic Party, the PdL and the Five Star Movement, with the former considered of the three, the winner because of several tens of thousands of more votes that gave it a majority in the lower house although not in the Senate. For most people, the logical thing was for the leader of the PD, Pier Luigi Bersani, to form a coalition with the Five Star movement on the basis of a strongly reformist package. But despite Mr. Bersani's somewhat undignified pleading and cajoling, the Five Star leader, Beppe Grillo, refused to budge from his purist, noli mi tangere stance. The only alternative was a coalition with Berlusconi's party, an idea that caused a major revolt inside the PD by party members who despise Berlusconi and blame him for the country's current economic disarray. The chaos was such that Mr. Bersani resigned and soon will be succeeded by another party leader, possibly Letta, but Matteo Renzi, the dynamic mayor of Florence, who lost to Bersani in the party's primaries last fall, is also a contender.

That was how things stood until it became obvious after five ballots that in such a context it was going to be impossible for the Parliament to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano whose seven-year term was to end in April. Although there is no constitutional bar to the re-election of a sitting Italian president, no Italian president has ever served two terms and Napolitano had said repeatedly that came what may, he would not stand again. He is, after all, 88 years old. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

After three days of inconclusive ballots, on April 20th, a joint PD-PdL delegation went to the Quirinale Palace and begged Mr. Napolitano to reconsider. He gave in, telling them however that they had to put their enmities aside and form a credible government, otherwise he would step down. When he was sworn in last week his speech to the 1,000 members of parliament was an angry one telling them to make sure this time they pass the reforms – economic, fiscal, labor-related and structural – that everyone knows the country needs. Mr. Napolitano, who started political life as a Communist party member and Marxist has turned into a widely respected political leader and in so doing has given the Italian presidency more oomph than it has had in years.

Sunday, the new government was sworn in and has more than one thing going for it. At 46, Mr. Letta, a former leftwing Christian Democrat, is the second youngest prime minister in Italian history and has considerable government experience. A prominent Bank of Italy official is the new economics minister and most of the people in the cabinet are new and younger names. One third of the 21 cabinet ministers are women, two of whom are foreign born and one of these is black, a veritable first for this largely homogenous country. Looming over the government, however, is the shadow of Berlusconi whose protégé, Angelo Alfano, is both interior minister (police) and deputy prime minister. Many observers warned that that if Berlusconi did not get his way on certain issues, he may decide to bring down the government.

Only three days into the new government's mandate, there is already serious arguing about what to do about IMU, the higher real estate tax imposed on Italians last year by the Mario Monti government (but, and everyone seems to forget this, devised a year earlier by the Berlusconi government). Berlusconi's campaign election in January hinged on his promise to repeal IMU and even to give it back, something which is unlikely. But there is talk about suspending this year's first payment in June or else, removing its application to primary home properties, which Berlusconi had done with the previous real estate tax known as ICI, or as the PD would prefer, exempting people with lower incomes. By endorsing the IMU question as a door die issue, Berlusconi has positioned himself brilliantly for future political battles.

The IMU issue, next to the jobs question, is probably the most inflammatory at the moment. Over the decades, Italians have invested millions in real estate, believing it is the only safe form of saving. At present, more than 60% of individual taxpayers own real estate, although a far lower number live in homes or apartments they actually own.

IMU may be the major reason they turned off so completely (if unfairly) on Monti and why so many voters decided to give Berlusconi another chance when the country went to the polls in February. Back in November, when he brought down the Monti government, his standing in the polls was way, way down. The new campaign election gave him a chance to get his support back up and, in fact, his party came in second. Berlusconi, clearly thinking of the future, is now saying he will pull out of the infant government if he does not get his way on IMU. This would probably mean total chaos since, since Napolitano is bound to make good on his threat to resign, meaning that the coming months may prove to be worse than the last two or three.


My Home Sweet Rome is a series of articles on Slow Travel.

Sari Gilbert, a journalist and author who lives in Rome and operates Live Rome Like a Roman vacation rental apartment and writes the Stranitalia blog.

© Sari Gilbert, 2013

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