Da The Times del 31/03/2006
Originale su http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,542-2111813,00.html

Back to crisis

Italy may face political instability after its general election

If the ability to pull rabbits out of a hat alone ensured political success, then Silvio Berlusconi could be sure of remaining in office. The arrival in Italy of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who had faced death for converting from Islam to Christianity, was a typically flamboyant coup de théâtre from the Prime Minister. Signor Berlusconi has dominated the airwaves and bombarded his electorate with magazines promoting his accomplishments. Yet the last opinion polls that could be legally published suggest that the opposition Centre Left has kept a small but stable lead over the grouping headed by the media billionaire. The outcome of the April 9-10 poll may be very close.

This has been a campaign stronger on heat than light. Signor Berlusconi’s difficulties lie with his record. He has certain achievements to his credit but the economy is still in an insipid state and his administration has taken a long time to address the challenges that it identified five years ago. Some of this is the result of euro membership and the unwillingness of voters to face uncomfortable facts. To a degree, however, Signor Berlusconi has hurt his own cause by diluting his market liberalism with ad hoc populism and by being distracted and diverted by the endless arguments over his control of much of Italian television and his numerous courtroom encounters.

As we report today, Romano Prodi, who was Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission, is increasingly confident that he can remove Signor Berlusconi from his post. Yet the alliance of which he is the figurehead is diverse to the point of comical. It includes 11 separate entities that range from barely reconstructed Communists to technocratic centrists. It is only held together by Signor Prodi’s familiar and reassuring face, a shared loathing of Signor Berlusconi, and a 280-page manifesto that has been the subject of painful bargaining. It is hard to believe that it would prove a practical programme for power.

The danger for Italians, therefore, is instability and immobilism once the ballots have been counted. If the Opposition wins, it is likely to splinter if not split in a crisis. The Centre Right may appear more united, but there are major tensions between Signor Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and its “partners”, the National Alliance and the Northern League, that would surface if they triumphed. This recipe for strife has been reinforced by a late and lament-able change in electoral law, brought in by the Prime Minister, which involves a larger element of proportional representation and so invites fragmentation in parliament.

Italy could be destined to return to short-lived and explosive administrations, revolving-door ministers and the safety-net option of government by bureaucrats never endorsed by the electorate and who have no mandate for a policy agenda. This would be a tragedy. Signor Berlusconi, for all his faults, at least managed to remain Prime Minister for the full duration of the last parliament. This represented a “first” in postwar Italian politics. It is a precedent which, alas, appears unlikely to be repeated over the next five years.

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