For those outside Italy who assumed that the era of Silvio Berlusconi was over, the latest crisis — in which he ordered five of his party’s ministers in the coalition government to resign — must come as a rude awakening to the realities of Italian politics. But to Italians, the situation is sadly predictable, and it speaks volumes about the sorry state of the country’s political landscape.
But while Mr. Berlusconi’s death-rattle attempt to remain relevant may not surprise Italian observers, the moment is still important. The ministers’ resignation will effectively bring down the government of Enrico Letta, the prime minister who hails from the center-left Democratic Party. What happens in the coming months — whether a new, responsible center can emerge to reform the political system, or whether extremists continue to push it apart — will have repercussions across Europe for decades to come.
Some people are watching these events with a half smile, hoping that Mr. Berlusconi has overplayed his hand and that the crisis may signal the end of his dominance over the nation’s politics. Of course, that comes at the risk of stopping Italy’s feeble recovery in its tracks, threatening the entire euro zone and causing the Italian political system to implode.
But the heart of the crisis is in the center right itself. Mr. Berlusconi has dragged his center-right party, the People of Freedom, into a game of chicken. What was once a moderate conservative majority is now experiencing a drift toward extremism and is beginning to look like a conglomeration of militant groups.
Since the ministers resigned on Saturday, several formerly loyal followers of Mr. Berlusconi have announced their opposition to the party’s direction. But they must now summon up the courage to break away and take a piece of his party with them, or the Italian system will continue to totter dangerously over a precipice.
If the Letta government falls, it will be almost impossible in the current Parliament to cobble together a new majority, which means yet another round of elections. And if the recent history of Italian politics is any guide, a new election would produce only fresh paralysis, if not chaos.
Voters have cast aspersions on out-of-touch political elites, and there has been a backlash against them. But the populist turn has been no less absurd than its target. The comedian Beppo Grillo’s Five Star movement, which claimed a large chunk of the votes in the last election, is an uncooperative protest party, with little to add to the conversation.
Italians are mindful that while change may often come belatedly to Italy, when it does come it is always traumatic. Writing off the political class would be just a short step away from writing off the institutions of democracy. But that doesn’t stop them from venting their frustrations at the voting booth.
The problem is that even with a willing public and a fresh slate, the two main parties — the People of Freedom and the fragmented Democratic Party — greatly distrust each other, and yet are not strong enough to win alone. Recriminations will occur even as efforts are undertaken to build yet another coalition.
Both parties will have to scrape together the largest number of forces available, drawing in smaller parties, making an already complicated mix even murkier. Piecing together a coalition always involves byzantine compromises, which sap the government’s ability to act. The political establishment that emerges from such a fiasco is generally impotent. This time will be no different.
Some people hope that institutional reform — perhaps a presidential system similar to that of France — can fix Italy’s self-destructive system.
But here we find a still deeper reason for pessimism: the inherent dysfunction of the political process itself. What exists now is a classic Catch-22 — in order to get a government that can govern, you need to change the governing system. But you can’t change the system unless you can govern effectively. Change is needed, but it is not clear where it will come from.
Some hope that the right will spawn a modern pro-free-market party that can rise from the ashes of “Berlusconism.” But who could be its leader? Mr. Letta’s predecessor, Mario Monti, tried and failed.
On the left, there is hope for a more realistic and fiscally responsible approach to the welfare state and business culture. Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, has the best chance of forcing a shake-up and becoming an Italian Tony Blair. But he still has a long way to go.
Italians are waiting for a new leader capable of telling the truth and not pandering to their fears. But to be legitimate, that leader must convince them of the need to break the deadlock with substantial reforms. Until such time, the empty demagogy and dangerous brinkmanship that is the order of the day will continue to both placate and fuel those fears.
Pialuisa Bianco is the founder of Longitude: The Italian Monthly on World Affairs and a strategic adviser to the Italian minister of foreign affairs.