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Thursday, February 22, 2007

A crisis is born in Italy

by Manuel Alvarez Rivera: San Juan de Puerto Rico

After only nine months in office, and just over two weeks after it lost a foreign policy vote in the Senate, Italy's center-left coalition government went into crisis when Prime Minister Romano Prodi presented his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano, following a further foreign policy vote setback in the Senate.

At the time of writing, Napolitano has yet to decide if he will accept Prodi's resignation, pending the outcome of consultations with political leaders. Following these consultations, he may request the government to continue in office - provided it wins a vote of confidence in both houses of Parliament. However, if that doesn't happen, the cabinet would have to resign and a new government would have to be put together, either by Prodi himself, another member of the center-left coalition, or by non-party technocrats. Even then, it may not be possible to form a new government capable of commanding majority support in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, in whose case early elections would have to be called, for both the Senate and the Chamber, or just for the Senate only.

Prodi's predicament is somewhat unusual in that his coalition government enjoys a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies - courtesy of the majority-prize electoral system introduced in 2005 by Prodi's arch-rival (and then-Prime Minister) Silvio Berlusconi - but it only commands a very narrow lead in the Senate, even with the support of seven lifetime members.

In last April's election, Berlusconi's center-right House of Freedoms coalition actually won a majority of votes in the Italian Senate - chosen by a somewhat more restrictive franchise that excludes citizens aged 18-24 - but majority prizes in the upper house are awarded on a regional basis, and in the election they cancelled each other out. Meanwhile, Italian expatriates, who were given separate parliamentary representation by Berlusconi's government, ended up supporting Prodi, and in the process handed him a one-seat edge among elected Senate members. Under these circumstances, a Senate-only poll - which would be Italy's first such vote and would have to be held under the existing majority-prize electoral law - would be even riskier than a full legislative election, since it could bring about a complete parliamentary deadlock if the center-right were to secure an upper house majority.

At any rate, the likelihood of fresh elections appears to be minimal at this juncture. Recent opinion polls have the center-left and center-right coalitions in a statistical dead heat (with the latter holding a very narrow lead), and it is far more likely that President Napolitano - a prominent former Communist who was chosen head of state last year over the objections of opposition right-of-center parties - would seek to exhaust all other alternatives before calling an early poll under an unchanged electoral law that could well bring Berlusconi back to power.

In some ways, this crisis has been somewhat blown out of proportion, since none of the parties in Prodi's coalition have withdrawn their support from the government: on the contrary, the center-left parties have rallied behind Prodi. Nevertheless, while Prodi may yet survive, the government's defeat in the Senate, brought about by two far-left parliamentarians who abstained from voting, underscores the fragility of its upper house majority.

As I have noted before, the government may eventually end up broadening its political base by bringing on board the Union of Christian and Center Democrats (UdC) - which broke with the House of Freedoms late last year - but that move could prove very difficult to sell to the far-left parties, which already find the more conservative elements within Prodi's coalition (read Clemente Mastella and his right-of-center UDEUR) just barely tolerable - and Prodi can't afford to lose the far left either.

While the current crisis is certainly reminiscent of the events of October 1998, which brought down Prodi's first government by a single vote in a Chamber of Deputies confidence vote, a more apt comparison may be with the crisis that took place a year earlier, when Italy's Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), who had sustained Prodi's first government without being part of it, suddenly withdrew its parliamentary support, leaving Prodi (who at the time had been in power for less than a year-and-a-half) with no choice but to submit his resignation. However, the whole thing was over within a week, and Prodi withdrew his resignation, remaining in office for another year.

Thus, the events of the last few days may not bring down Romano Prodi; nonetheless, they may turn out to be the prelude of a greater crisis further down the road.


Romano Prodi will remain in office after his center-left coalition government narrowly won a vote of confidence in the Italian Senate on Wednesday, February 28. The vote in the Senate was held after President Giorgio Napolitano rejected Prodi's resignation last Saturday and asked him to remain as prime minister.

Prodi won the Senate vote by a 162-157 margin. Four life senators voted for the government, as did former UdC leader Marco Follini, now sitting as an independent centrist. Subsequently, Prodi's government prevailed in a Friday, March 2 Chamber of Deputies confidence motion by 342 to 253 - a widely anticipated outcome, since the ruling center-left coalition holds a commanding majority in Italy's lower house of Parliament.

While this sudden crisis has died out in just a week - as was the case in 1997 - the long-term outlook for Prodi's government remains uncertain at best, in the absence of a strong Senate majority. Although Prodi's center-left allies have agreed to a "non-negotiable" 12-point program, it's far from certain the deal will be sufficient to overcome policy differences among coalition partners on a variety of issues, including among them a reform of the existing electoral system.

Moreover, if the events that took place after the October 1997 crisis are any indication of what lies ahead, things don't look very promising for Prodi: after that crisis was overcome, he only managed to last one more year in office before his cabinet finally lost the confidence of Parliament. While history may not necessarily repeat itself, the fact that this crisis has come much sooner than ten years ago - back then, the center-left had been in power for seventeen months, as opposed to just nine this time around - makes it difficult to escape the conclusion that Romano Prodi's troubles are far from over.