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Sunday, 29 August 2010

Italy's politics are broken

While political debate in Britain is dominated by assessments of the regressive Coalition budget and the Labour leadership election, it's easy to forget what's going on in our European neighbour countries. Of most interest to the British left should be the political turmoil in Italy that could end the career of scandal-ridden, and erstwhile pal of Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi. Unfortunately, my fear is that his possible replacement as Prime Minister would be even worse.

In the rollercoaster that has been Berlusconi's career, the events on August 4th when he avoided a humiliating vote of confidence defeat (the 630 member Chamber of Deputies voted by 299 in favour with 229 against) only because of the abstention of 75 of his own deputies, may amount to only a small footnote. But he now lacks a parliamentary majority and may well be forced to call a snap election this autumn because, in Gianfranco Fini, he has a new and powerful rival - one who also has the 'Teflon touch' that allows him to keep power despite controversies that would end most political careers.

Berlusconi is justifiably loathed by the centre-left in Italy and regarded as a bit of a laughing-stock across Europe , but he is a great political survivor. A series of corruption and sex scandals, massive infighting within his political parties combined with two general election defeats would have finished the careers of most. But sixteen years after his Forza Italia party swept to power in 1994, he remains Prime Minister, as he has been for 9 out of the last 16 years.

The makeup of the current Berlusconi government is frightening. It is a mixture of the corrupt right and the extreme right. And in the battle for the soul of the Italian right, Berlusconi is, incredibly, the lesser of two evils.

The man who would be king is Gianfranco Fini - a man who has either had a 'Road to Damascus ' style conversion, or remains a fascist. Fini's political career started in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) a far-right party inextricably linked with murderous bombing campaigns and civic violence, particularly in the 1970s.

Having been elected as an MSI MP in 1983, Fini became the party's national secretary in 1988. Back then, Fini was either an unabashed fascist or, at the very least, a staunch admirer of Mussolini. In a series of statements in the early 1990s, he stated that "after almost half a century, fascism is alive", "Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman of the twentieth century" and "fascism has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government".

In the early 1990s, the MSI (which consistently polled 5-10% from the 1950s to the 1980s) morphed into the Alleanza Nationale (National Alliance) in a bid to become more credible. It described itself as 'post-fascist' - a name that Nick Griffin would probably use to describe the BNP. It also developed links with the extreme-right of the Conservative party, particularly the now disbanded 'Monday Club', and had particularly close links with Tory MPs Andrew Rosindell and Bill Cash.

But Fini is an ambitious man who wanted to cement himself firmly in the mainstream right of Italian politics. The next logical step, which he took in 2008, was to unite his party with Berlusconi's to form the People of Freedom party - a pretty unlikely name given Fini's history.

Fini is unquestionably the most dangerous man in Italian politics. Despite his fascist past, between 2001 and 2006 he was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Since 2008, he has been President of the Chamber of Deputies. Now that he sees that Berlusconi is weak, following a sex and corruption scandals and an unpopular austerity budget, he and his supporters are angling for the main prize.

Meanwhile, we shouldn't ignore Berlusconi's other coalition partners, the Northern League, a party that was originally designed to campaign for autonomy for the region of Padania, but in reality is an anti-immigrant and overtly racist party. Indeed, in the European Parliament, the 9 Northern League MEPs sit with UKIP.

We might think it astonishing that a man like Berlusconi is not in prison, let alone Prime Minister of one of Europe 's largest countries, and that the likes of Fini and the Northern League deputies are elected to parliament, never mind government ministers. But it's also astonishing that the Italian centre-left is not in position to convincingly take power. The centre-left Democratic Party is, despite facing a scandal-ridden and unpopular government which is split down the middle, still below Berlusconi's party, on 28% according to latest opinion polls.

My guess is that Berlusconi will, as he always has done, survive once again. If he is forced into calling a snap election this autumn, the chances are that he would just cling to power and should just be able to hold off Fini. The desperately sad thing is that, if the Democratic party and its allies cannot get their act together, and fast, then Berlusconi is probably the lesser of two evils.
New Statesman