Where next in Italian politics?

James Walston explains the Italy's latest efforts to form a new government.

We also print the text from his blog below.

The electronic tumbrils are beginning to roll. On Friday, the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) spokewoman in the Chamber of Deputies, Roberta Lombardi upbraided her opposite number in the Senate. He had addressed her as “Honorable”, the usual term for a deputy. Horror! Instead of M5S’s regulation “Citizen”.

We are still a long way from seeing real blood in the streets but the M5S does have plenty of revolutionary elements in its methods and aims. The brains behind Beppe Grillo’s throne, Gianroberto Casaleggio, believes that they have the answers to all our problems and can lead us there through well-manipulated web. In practical terms, this means doing away with the executive and leaving all power to the legislature which would run the country. Grillo has proposed either this, no government, or a government headed by someone proposed by him… but he’s not going to say who until he has the mandate.

This is a revolution. To be sure, it is very different from Paris, Petrograd or Tehran which did change the world, or more modestly, the ongoing changes in Tunis and Cairo where we still don’t know where they and we will end up; the Grillo revolution might fizzle out at the next elections or it might follow the Leopard strategy (“we have to change everything in order to keep things the way they are”) or it might genuinely change Italy and maybe Europe.

At the moment, it is only President Napolitano who seems to know what he wants and which direction the country should go in but even he is far from sanguine about his chance of success.

A week after giving Democratic Party (PD) secretary Pierluigi Bersani a limited mandate to form a government, Napolitano spoke again.

He refused Bersani’s request to test his strength in Parliament. Bersani wanted to challenge the other party leaders to prevent him forming a government and do it in the Senate where with a secret ballot and maneuverings to lower the quorum, he might just have won a vote of confidence. It was a very risky strategy but a courageous one in which success or failure would have been visible. Bersani is a man of integrity and honesty who actually has wanted to change Italian politics and did so within his own party but he is without enough appeal to win either the February elections or the vote of confidence he was looking for last week and probably would not have got.

But even if he had won, it would have been a very, very fragile government, something that Napolitano was not prepared to countenance.

The president knows that there has to be a reliable majority in order to protect the Italian reputation on the world bond markets and to protect the political system and he is not prepared to do anything which might upset the applecart more than it’s upset already.

His choice was to appoint two committees made up of “10 wise men”, to draw up proposals that a new government might implement. Four are to look after political matters (electoral and constitutional reform), six for the economy. They are all linked in some way to the old parties, worthy, certainly but neither original nor independent.

There are various reasons why Napolitano is cautious (the polite word – pusillanimous is the ruder one). First, he is the President of the Republic, an inherently conservative role and normally, purely symbolic. Secondly, there is his age, 88, not one in which people usually launch into uncharted territories. Thirdly, and most importantly, he spent most of his political life in one of the most regulated organisations of the 20th century – the Communist Party. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was far freer than most others but it was still a place where “anarchism” was as much anathema as freethinking was to Jesuits. Alongside the PCI was the Italian system which almost always chose a muddled compromise with spoils sharing rather than open battles. Finally, he presumably also has at least a touch of understandable conceit seeing himself as the last barrier before chaos engulfs Italy.

Next to these “big” ideological and psychological reasons are the short-term “small” political reasons for caution. The easiest way out of the swamp would be to call new elections but Napolitano is constitutionally barred from doing so because he has only six weeks of his mandate to run (the president may not dissolve Parliament in his last six months in office - the so-called semestre bianco, “white semester” unless Parliament had reached the end of its normal mandate). So if there are to be new elections, they will have to be called by Napolitano’s successor whose election process will begin on 15 April.

Then there is continuing stalemate between the  three bigger groups in Parliament. They are still playing scissors-stone-paper with the country. Berlusconi and the PdL want some sort of guarantee for Berlusconi two of whose cases will come to verdict even before a July election (and if one goes against him, he might be barred from holding public office). They have said they are willing to make an alliance with the PD but not with a programme that includes a conflict of interest and corruption laws.

The PD have a programme but no allies (some Grillini might face Grillo’s wrath and vote with the PD on selected issues) and they know they face further losses in early elections if they ally with Berlusconi. And the cracks are beginning to show.

Grillo and the M5S are in difficulty because of their success. They either go for the least bad option (the PD) and lose the revolutionary charge, or they hold out against any of the old parties and risk increasing the effects of the economic crisis.

The elephant in the sitting room is the revision of the electoral law – everyone agrees that the present law should be changed but no one agrees on what the new law should be.

Napolitano has chosen to delay the day of reckoning, a tactic which worked for Fabius Maximus, Cunctator, against Hannibal 2,200 years ago but is less suitable to quell internal strife today.

James Walston is Chair of the Department International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome.