Prodi's Tenure, Short and Sour

February 23, 2007 Topic: Domestic PoliticsElectionsPolitics Region: Southern EuropeEurope

Prodi's Tenure, Short and Sour

The disintegration of Prodi’s tragi-comic coalition could have profound implications for Italy, and beyond.


TRENTO, Italy.

Former Eurocrat Romano Prodi proved the sceptics right Wednesday, when he resigned after his coalition was defeated in the Senate in a debate over foreign policy. His government had endured just 281 days, though Prodi had promised it would last a full five-year term.


Holding his coalition together was always going to be akin to herding cats.

It contains parties such as Communist Refoundation and the Communists of Italy whose ideological position is on the anti-globalization left; yet it also contains conservatives and free market liberals. His coalition contains Catholic hardliners, but also doctrinaire anti-clericals.

Prodi's coalition, which actually lost the popular vote last April in the Senate poll, also relies on the votes of the seven life senators for a majority in the Senate. These individuals, who include three former presidents, two former prime ministers, the 98-year-old Nobel Prize winner Rita Montalcini Levi, and the celebrated automobile designer Sergio Pininfarina, have played a key role in Italian politics since last spring, but their average age is nearly ninety. The votes of Pininfarina, former President Francesco Cossiga and the inevitable Giulio Andreotti were decisive in Prodi's defeat. All three either voted against the government or abstained.

Given his tenuous position in Parliament and the nature of his coalition, Prodi's record has not been so bad. His government has made a start, albeit an inadequate one, at restoring public finances. The tax burden on companies has been reduced. Measures liberalizing the economy have been passed-although to give some idea of how much needs to be done, one of these measures, allowing supermarkets to sell non-prescription medicines such as aspirin, provoked a nationwide shutdown by drugstore owners. The economy, profiting from higher than expected growth in the rest ofEurope, has begun a period of export-led expansion, though it still lags other comparable European states.

Foreign policy has also been regarded as a success. Italy took a leading role in brokering the ceasefire last summer between Lebanon and Israel and more than 2,000 Italian troops are currently stationed in southern Lebanon. Prodi's government has worked hard to repair relations with important European Union states such as Germany and Spain. Under the previous government of the media baron Silvio Berlusconi relations with these states had been lukewarm at best.

What brought Prodi down was a combination of anti-Americanism and domestic culture wars. There is a looming vote over refinancing the Italian mission in Afghanistan and the government also announced that it would allow the United States to extend the airbase inVicenza in northeast Italy. The far left parties in Prodi's coalition all rode the wave of local opposition to the base extension while remaining snugly in the government. Simultaneously, the government has been embroiled in a row over the introduction of civil unions, laws giving equality to non-married couples which the Church, a permanent presence in Italian politics, has opposed with all its might. Prodi fell because Cossiga and Andreotti, former Cold War hawks who are strong Catholics, switched sides and because a couple of Trotskyist backbenchers could no longer stomach supporting what they regard as the American war machine.

What will happen now? There are three possible alternatives. First, Prodi might succeed in forming a new government and might broaden his coalition to include Catholic centrists currently in opposition. A handful of individuals seem willing to try this strategy, which is known in Italian by the pejorative term of trasformismo when the other side does it, but as statesmanship when you do it. The main centrist Catholic party, the Union of Christian Democrats and of the Center, which is led by a relatively young and ambitious Catholic politician named Pierferdinando Casini, has already broken away from Berlusconi's right-wing opposition. Casini's price would be lots of ministers for his party and the exclusion of the radical left. This price is probably too high. The second option is going to the polls. Prodi is desperate to avoid this option since the center-left would be hammered. At the same time, owing to the ultra-proportional character of the electoral law passed by the Berlusconi government in December 2005, it is not clear that the three main right-wing parties, Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the post-fascist National Alliance and the populist Northern League, could command a majority without Casini's UDC. The third choice facing President Giorgio Napolitano is to create a "government of the institutions", headed by a figure acceptable to the biggest parties, for a pre-determined span of time, that would have the task, above all, of introducing a sensible electoral law.

Does any of this matter? Is Italy not just proving, once again, the truth of the axiom that in Italy "things are grave, but not serious?" Maybe, but Italy can ill-afford political squabbling right now. The economy's structural weaknesses, the shortcomings of the country's schools and universities, the widespread problems of poverty and law and order that still afflict southern Italy in particular, all require decisive action from a strong democratic government. But strong government is precisely what the political elite, both right and left, seem unable to provide. The most worrying development in Italian politics in the last month has not been the fall of Prodi's tragi-comic cabinet. It was the discovery, in the town of Padova, of a would-be terrorist cell, well-armed and spouting the same chilling conspiracy theories as their mentors in the early 1970s.

Mark Gilbert teaches history atTrento University and at Johns Hopkins SAIS, Bologna.   

Gilbert's essay, "Less Than Dolce Vita", in the Spring 2006 issue of The National Interest (see below) foretold of Prodi's electoral victory and subsequent troubles with his coalition.