Italy's right-wing could be defeated by shattered unity

While Britain embraces its first coalition government in more than 60 years, a European country where such politics is the norm struggles to find political stability, as Ylenia Lemos reports.

“We will be alone, without Berlusconi,” says leader of far-right Northern League Party (Lega Nord) Umberto Bossi, who is on the verge of breaking his alliance with the ailing government of Silvio Berlusconi, one of Italy's longest serving premiers.

Bossi has propped up the Berlusconi-led People of Freedom (PdL for Popolo della Libertà) coalition since the 2008 general election. PdL’s cornerstones have been Gianfranco Fini’s right-wing National Alliance (AN, for Alleanza Nazionale) and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI).

But tensions are building up between Fini, also president of the Italian House of Commons, and the flamboyant billionaire premier. Both have been publically shouting at each other in the past month and the Northern League has taken the opportunity to capitalise on the situation by threatening their alliance with PdL.

Bossi, who says he is a “real friend” of Berlusconi, thinks he should have eliminated Fini a long time ago, and Fini on the other hand, who has been ideologically antagonistic towards Bossi but has been until today a loyal ally of the premier, is furious over the influence that the Northern League now has on government policy.

Last March’s election results in Italy's 13 regions left Berlusconi still in control, but Bossi’s party - also a long-time ally yet always a stone in the premier’s shoe, have stepped forward, allowing them to increase their say in the partnership. 

The Northern League is animated by this increase in power and could be tempted for go for early elections. Although the League defends Berlusconi in its war against Fini, Bossi says the alliance is not bound to hold firm and that the centre left, more apathetic as they have ever been, would otherwise win the next general elections.

The war between Berlusconi and Fini and the Northern League’s rise could mean an end to Italy’s hardy prime minister notwithstanding his seemingly self-centred actions, alleged womanising and a torrent of criticism heaped on him by his political opponents.

It makes sense that with separation under the same roof, Berlusconi and Fini won’t go far and soon they could find themselves rallying their respective followers for an early election. From his side, Bossi threatens: “A new road awaits us ...we'll have to go it alone, without Berlusconi.”

In exchange for Berlusconi’s support Bossi has been demanding to implement fiscal federalism in Italy since their first alliance in government in 1994. The Northern League has forever defended the financial, even state, independence of the north of the country from Rome and what it claims is its wasteful fiscal allocation, which according to them has perpetuated inefficient subsidisation of the south making it dependent of the wealth originated in the productive north.

The idea of course is strongly opposed by centre-right nationalist Fini and by all leftists in the opposition. But according to Bossi, without fiscal federalism, Italy will end up with a shattered economy like Greece.

For a first world country which has historically struggled with its public finances, back-staged among the European Community’s weakest economies (cynically dubbed as PIGS for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), the Northern League’s flagship idea, as extremist as it can seem, could represent a significant step towards greater economic efficiency.

Berlusconi’s “Minister for Simplification” as is its real name, did, in fact, draft a bill two years ago, with the intention of driving tax money from citizens’ pockets to government services closer to their needs - which are typically managed by the municipal and regional governments.

The policy would give local government more autonomy reducing the automatic, historically based, and deficient transfers to the central government. A new tax distribution process could even improve the money-vote allocation with more direct political responsibility in each region. Moreover, control over fiscal evasiveness would be facilitated through a more straightforward accountability line, associating tax money to the respective public service and office to which it is destined.

Even if the this technical epoch-making move is on hold, there’s a hypothesis based on the instituting a “technical government” which could more easily promote important bills like the fiscal federation one. The option is being ventilated in the opposition, but also among Berlusconi’s dissidents and in the ranks of Fini’s AN.

It seems to be the best way to bridge the everlasting political unrest associated with the Italian prime minister. This form of succession actually honours Berlusconi who finds no political substitute at his level, and a super partes leader, such as current central bank governor Mario Draghi, could take over the execution of key projects that the premier could not implement but which seem technically sound. From the perspective of his opponents, it is probably the only way to phase out the Berlusconi era.