Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The return of Berlusconi?

The past week has been a shattering, if not entirely unexpected week for Italy’s center left. The country’s premier, Romano Prodi, resigned last week after losing a confidence vote in the senate.

Today Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano met with Prodi’s arch rival, controversial conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, who has been demanding early elections in which he could potentially reclaim power.

Prodi had been in power for two years, and in some ways it was surprising he had even lasted that long. His center-left coalition won power in April 2006 with a slim majority, and even then his fractious coalition seemed doomed from the start. In February 2007 Prodi had to resign as prime minister after losing a key foreign policy vote over Prodi's stance that Italy should continue to provide troops in Afghanistan, and over Prodi’s support of an expansion of an American military base in Vicenza, in northern Italy. Prodi then had to form a new government to hold on to power.

Italy’s government is notoriously fractious and ineffectual. Berlusconi, who served as prime minister for five years before Prodi, was the longest-serving prime minister ever. Echoing a common trend in Southern Europe, many Italians feel that Berlusconi’s autocratic and megalomaniacal style is a small price to pay for the stability and order he was able to force.

If an election is called Walter Veltroni would run for the premiership for the center-left coalition, and he is to meet with the Italian president later today. Napolitano has two options: dissolve Parliament and call elections three years ahead of schedule or create an interim government handing over temporary power to an apolitical figure. That interim administration would be in charge of changing an electoral law that is widely blamed for fostering Italy's political instability.

Berlusconi is rejecting the idea of an interim government and is instead pushing for an early vote, which polls show he would likely win comfortably. The center-left wants to delay the vote and wants the proportional-representation system that was hurried through at the end of the Berlusconi administration dismantled before a new election occurs. The president is expected to announce his decision by tomorrow.

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